Special to The Augusta Free Press
August 31, 2004
The writing is on the wall. Recent closings and consolidations have reduced the number of horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. from 14 down to two, both located in Texas, and a new one in Illinois. Those Texas plants are now under pressure from both Texas and federal lawyers to shut down their operations. How quickly it will happen is anyone's guess, but the future of legal horse slaughter is definitely looking grim. The question from people on both sides of the issue is, "What are we going to do with all these horses when the slaughterhouses close?"
The number of horses slaughtered in the U.S. has decreased every year since 1989, when it reached a peak of 342,877. In 2001, the total fell to 56,332, less than 1 percent of the estimated U.S. horse population of 7 million. A 2001 Animal Sciences Research Report by the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University titled "Characterizations of Horses at Auctions and in Slaughter Plants" stated that slightly over 79 percent of the horses slaughtered were in good, fat to obese condition, while 88 percent had poor to excellent hoof condition. Based on these figures, it is estimated that 85 percent of those horses sent to slaughter are currently in usable condition, although they may require some degree of physical rehabilitation. In other words, in 2001 only 8,450 horses were in such condition that humane euthanasia might have been the best choice.
Far beyond the emotional reasons of the anti-slaughter forces, the closing of the horse slaughterhouses brings a number of benefits to the equine industry. Chief among these are the financial benefit of those directly and indirectly involved with horses. Currently, horses have a total impact on the U.S. gross-domestic product of $112.1 billion, including $25.3 billion directly and $86.8 billion indirectly, according to the American Horse Council. This translates into an average of nearly $19,000 per horse. Had the 47,882 usable horses not gone to slaughter, the horse industry would have seen an increase in related sales of more than $900 million.
With the closing of the horse slaughterhouses owners will be faced with the options, after euthanasia, of burial, cremation or rendering. The rendering of euthanized horses has become almost obsolete, since the sale of sick and injured horses to slaughterhouses provided a minimal dollar return. Without doubt, rendering operations will see a large increase in the demand for their services. The increases in this economic benefit alone will far outweigh the estimated payroll and tax base income of the two counties in Texas that contain the foreign-owned slaughterhouses.
John Hettinger, owner of Fasig Tipton (the second largest Thoroughbred auction house), chairman of the Grayson Jockey Club Foundation, member of the board of directors of The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and New York Racing Association Trustee, states that between 7,000 to 9,000 Thoroughbred racehorses are slaughtered every year. With the closing of the major outlet for the overproduction of horses, it will make economic sense to both backyard and commercial breeders to curtail the current mass production of foals and become more selective in their breeding programs. The future decrease in foal production will eventually lead to an increase in the selling price of all breeds of horses.
The short-term effect of the slaughterhouse closings will have a negative impact only on those who profit from the disposal of unwanted horses. Many will be forced to look closely at their own financial motivations that currently contribute to the problem. Responsible breeding and horse ownership, when backed by the enforcement of current animal-abuse laws, will benefit the majority of those in the horse industry. When the old adage of Follow the money points to an increase in financial return in years to come, we will look back on the horse-slaughter days of yesteryear and seriously wonder why we let it continue for as long as we did.
Jerry Finch is the president of the Hitchcock, Texas,-based Habitat for Horses. Learn more about the organization at www.habitatforhorses.org.