House to consider the fate of horse slaughterhouses

By Cari Hammerstrom


Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Not so long ago, horses pulled wagons full of pioneers westward and aided explorers in mapping territory west of the Mississippi.

Western movies have idolized horses alongside cowboys, and for some people, nothing seems so free as an untamed stallion. Horses hold a special place in America's culture.

That is why some people are opposed to eating their equine friends and to a proposal, House Bill 1324, that would make it legal in Texas to process and ship horse meat for human consumption overseas.

Although horses aren't sold for human consumption in the United States, horse meat is a delicacy in Europe and Japan. According to an obscure piece of Texas law, it's illegal to sell, offer to sell or intend to sell horse meat for human consumption.

The bill, by Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, would effectively end a federal lawsuit filed by two horse slaughter plants in Brown's East Texas district. The Belgian-owned plants, Beltex Corp. and Dallas Crown Packing Inc., want the state's law against selling horse meat ruled unconstitutional, saying that only the federal government can regulate international commerce.

The plants, which slaughter horses and ship the meat overseas, are the only horse slaughterhouses in the country.

Animal rights activists, including Skip Trimble, a real estate lawyer from Dallas and spokesman for the Texas Humane Legislation Network, say the existing state law should be enforced. They plan to turn out at 8 a.m. today to speak against Brown's bill, which will be considered by the House Agriculture Committee.

They will not be there alone, though. Supporters of the bill, including equine veterinarian Steve Hicks of Palestine, plan to say the horse slaughter plants need to remain open.

Brown said her bill, prompted by veterinarians, simply clarifies the law.

Animal rights activists "think I'm trying to make it legal. But it is legal," Brown said. "I'm trying to clarify the law. There's a lot of misinforma- tion."

There also are financial issues.

Beltex and Dallas Crown are both Belgian-owned, meaning $30 million to $40 million annually in profits are not put back into the Texas economy. However, they are Texas corporations, employ roughly 150 people and pay a combined $115,000 in property taxes, lawyer David Broiles said.

A live horse is worth more than a dead horse, said Pat Dickie, co-owner of Tonkawood Farms in Marble Falls.

"In a $112 billion horse industry, a live horse is a consumer. They need food, water, minerals, salt, shoeing, hay, and people buy clothes, land, fences, trailers and trucks. The horse, by being alive, is creating many, many dollars," Dickie said.

Hicks, a graduate of the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine, past president of the Texas Thoroughbred Association and a horse breeder, said he doesn't think the financial implications of this bill are important. Hicks said he is looking out for horses' welfare.

"It's an emotional issue. We all want the best care. We all want them to be treated humanely and with dignity. We also want to make sure that unwanted horses, unusable and crippled horses have a place where they can be humanely euthanized and disposed of," Hicks said.

Slaughtering horses isn't Hicks' first choice. He supports horse rescue organizations but said there just aren't enough of them. Many horses that look good to the animal rights activists in the auction ring really have behavioral problems, Hicks said. Others are unwanted or living a miserable existence. So there is a need for them to be humanely put down, be it by a veterinarian or by a horse slaughter plant, he said.

"We can't legislate quality ownership. We can't make people take care of their horses. We have to provide a place for humane disposal," Hicks said.

Horse slaughter plants provide equine pericardia, which are used to augment the human heart pericardium to assist in closure after heart surgery. Horse reproductive tracts are collected from the plants by universities for use in veterinary study, and food for zoo animals is manufactured there.

Trimble said the slaughtering methods used on horses and the travel conditions to the plants are inhumane.

Horses are slaughtered like cattle by shooting a bolt between their eyes into the brain, rendering them unconscious. Because horses are flighty, often this has to be done repeatedly, Trimble said.

Horses are transported from around the country in double-decker trailers too small for them, he said. They fight with one another and are not given food and water for days, and some die or are seriously injured, he said.

Hicks disagreed, citing a study by the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. According to that study, 63 trailers with 1,008 horses arriving at the slaughter plants were observed in 1998. Only 42 percent of the horses were transported on double deckers, and 92 percent arrived at the plants in good condition. Many animal rights activists are angered by the idea of human consumption. Although they might not be opposed to euthanizing a horse, many are opposed to eating it.

"Most people don't think of horses as food," Trimble said. "How are we to argue when someone wants to come and set up a plant to slaughter dogs and cats to send to Korea and China?"; 445-3639