Chicago Sun Times
Horses: beloved friends -- or food?

March 21, 2004

BY TOM MCNAMEE Staff Reporter

"Here's where the animals are brought in," Jim Tucker says.

Tucker is talking about horses and pointing to what looks like a garage door.

This is the door the horses will walk through to be killed -- horses that somebody sold for a few hundred bucks or less: the old ones, the slow ones, the mean ones, the lame ones, the ugly ones.

Chances are, each horse will have a name. Chances are, each one will have pulled a load or carried a rider or eaten sugar from a child's hand. But the moment it goes through this door, its status will plummet to mere livestock, just a cow with spirit.

Then, in the next day or two, it will be killed and skinned and gutted, carved into steaks and chops, and shipped to countries across the seas where people eat horse meat.

The slaughterhouse is in DeKalb, 60 miles west of Chicago, and Tucker runs the place.

Which puts him in a tough spot.

"No doubt about it," he says Friday morning, walking through the place, giving a tour. "It's an issue with some people."

How much of an issue? What happens when you tell people what you do for a living?

"For every 10 people, I'd say that maybe one or two are amazed," Tucker replies. "They won't talk about it. Most of the rest will say, 'I don't think there's anything wrong with that.' And a couple will say, 'Good for you.'"

Cavel International, a Belgian firm, operated a slaughterhouse for horses in DeKalb from 1987 to 2002. Some people in town protested, but Tucker likes to pull out old business stories from the local papers about how great it was for DeKalb.

When the slaughterhouse burned down in 2002, Cavel decided to rebuild. The new plant -- a big block of gray concrete in the boonies of DeKalb -- is scheduled to open in a couple of weeks. It would employ 30 to 40 workers and could handle the slaughter of 100 horses a day.

A bill pending in Springfield, however, would close down the slaughterhouse before the first horses even showed up. The bill, which would ban the slaughter of horses in Illinois for human consumption, was approved by the Senate last year. An amended bill, backed by the state's five biggest racetracks, could be voted on in the House as early as Thursday.

A horse, supporters of the ban argue, is not dumb livestock. It is a beloved friend and central to the American experience. The horse helped build the nation, served the cowboy and carried soldiers into battle. It is a "companion" animal, like a dog or a cat, and a sporting animal.

Killing a horse for food, the bill's supporters say, is a fundamental violation of the American way.

Tucker doesn't look like a man trying to undermine the American way. He's an accountant in his late 50s who tucks his fingers into the pockets of his jeans when he walks. He grew up next door in Sycamore, rode horses as a boy, and raised three kids on his paycheck from Cavel.

When Tucker first went to work for the company, in 1987, he'd never seen the inside of a slaughterhouse and was fascinated, but not repulsed.

"It gets to you a little bit, but it's almost interesting," he says. "You see the animal being slaughtered and skinned and all that. It's what happens in every slaughterhouse."

And the fact that the animal was a horse?

"I didn't think of it one way or another," he says.

From the loading dock, Tucker walks down one of the two narrow concrete chutes that will lead the condemned horses to a weighing scale, then to four concrete holding pens. Water troughs are built into the walls. Hay bins hang overhead.

Nothing bigger than a spider has died in this building yet, and it's hard to visualize the carnage to come. But critics such as Gail Vacca, who lives in DeKalb and is the Illinois coordinator for the National Horse Protection Coalition, describe a scene of stammering, terrified horses that smell the blood. Horses are not herd animals, Vacca says, and fight out of sheer fear.

From the holding pens, Tucker walks through a door to the "knock box." This is the room in which a worker will reach over and shoot a four-inch retractable bolt straight into the skull of each horse as it enters. Veterinarians call this "stunning" the animal, Tucker says, but that's misleading.

"They are dead instantly -- beyond feeling pain," he says. "But then you get into the definition of death. The heart is still beating."

Opponents and defenders of slaughtering horses disagree on just about everything, from how safe the meat is -- given the powerful drugs horses are administered -- to how horrific the truck ride is from distant auctions, to whether a horse can sense what's coming.

But it is over this issue -- death in the knock box -- that emotions seem to run highest. Tucker says the captive bolt, as it is called, is easily maneuverable and extremely effective. The horse never knows what hit it.

But Vacca and others insist that because horses struggle, the captive bolt does not always achieve a clean hit. And then, they say, the horse is hoisted by a chain over a "bleeding trough," still capable of feeling pain, and its neck is slit to drain the blood.

From the knock box room, Tucker moves on to the gutting room, the cutting rooms and the chilling room. Without the cutting machines, yet to be installed, and the hanging carcasses, which may never come, the stainless steel rooms look all the same.

At the shipping dock, Tucker explains how the meat will be flown to Europe, where it will be sold in grocery stores, for a price slightly lower than beef.

"People say it's a delicacy in Europe," he says. "It is not. People see it as the same as beef, or a little less."

In the United States, only two slaughterhouses -- both in Texas -- produce horse meat, killing about 50,000 horses a year. Almost all of the meat is shipped to other countries, especially Belgium, France and Italy. In the United States, horse meat can be sold legally only in seven states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia.

The United States has about 6.9 million horses, of which about 10 percent a year die of natural causes or are euthanized in the same way as dogs and cats. At rendering plants, the carcasses are used to make leather, pet food, fertilizer and other products.

State Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago), sponsor of the horse slaughter ban, said he feels confident the bill will pass.

"What do we tell our kids?" he asked. "How do we say, 'Oh, the horse is so revered. It has helped us in war, helped us on our farms. It's even our pet. And oh, by the way, when it's dead, we're gonna chop it up for people to eat."

But this is what Tucker says he told his three kids when they were growing up:

"A slaughterhouse can be upsetting, especially if you've never seen one before. But we've always thought we're doing something commendable. We're employing people. We're bringing in investment. And it's environmentally wasteful to kill a horse and not use the meat."