Horses just don't fit Americans' idea of meat

Mary Schmich

March 19, 2004

Shortly after learning that a Belgian company was about to resume slaughtering horses in Illinois and shipping the meat abroad, Bob Molaro saw a TV report in which American soldiers were riding horses through the mountains of Afghanistan. He got to thinking:

"These horses are serving our country, and at the end of their lives they can be served as food to the French?"

It was Thursday and Molaro, a Democratic state representative from Chicago, was standing in a black suit in the frigid arena of the Noble Horse, a Near North Side stable that houses those horses and carriages you may have seen clopping through downtown.

"Horses serve us in battle," Molaro went on. "Horses have been involved in building every major infrastructure. Railroads. Roads. People use them as pets. It's a cultural issue."

It's a cultural issue Molaro wanted to publicize at this news conference, though the scanty press was outnumbered by the smattering of horse lovers wearing anti-slaughter buttons. Down in the dirt ring stood a podium of hay bales strung with a banner: "Horses today--poodles tomorrow."

Another sign said: "Let them eat cake, not horses." And another: "Mr. Ed isn't Mr. Edible."

Molaro is the sponsor of a bill in the state House that would ban horse-slaughter for human consumption in Illinois. It's aimed at Cavel International, a Belgian enterprise whose DeKalb plant burned down two years ago. Now the plant is about to reopen, joining two Texas slaughterhouses as the only U.S. plants that kill horses for human food, most of it exported.

The anti-slaughter forces paint a ghastly picture of the process required to put horse meat on tables in Europe and Japan. They describe horses, with their long necks, herded into double-decker trucks designed for shorter animals, and of the battles that horses have in those cow cages (recently outlawed for horse transport, by the way).

"Horses have not been bred through the millennia like cattle to be docile," said Dr. Lydia Gray, who runs the Hooved Animal Humane Society. "Horses go to the slaughter fighting."

The fight is over once the horses--in a procedure like what's used for cattle--are stunned with a retractable bolt into the brain, strung upside down, cut open and bled dry.

"It's not pretty," conceded James Tucker, manager of Cavel's DeKalb plant, by phone. "But I don't think most people have slaughtered their own chickens. . . . In terms of foreigners eating it, who are we to tell people what they should eat?"

I'm American enough to feel queasy at the idea of eating horse meat. Black Beauty, Flicka, Trigger, Seabiscuit. Horses are our friends and heroes.

I'm also American enough that the first time I lived in France I was so startled by the sight of all those animal parts dangling in butcher shop windows--horse heads, cow flanks, skinned rabbits, whole feathered chickens--that I went vegetarian for 20 years. Like most Americans I'd been accustomed to my meat being chopped up into tidy parts and camouflaged in plastic. Once I realized exactly what I was doing when I ate meat, I didn't want to do it anymore.

I now eat some meat. But I didn't change my view that if you're going to be a carnivore it's important to be clear about what it took to put that animal on your plate. It's never pretty.

Is it even uglier if the animal is a horse?

I have a friend who's fond of horses in the personal way unique to people who have known or owned them as companions. When we talked about this issue, he surprised me with good arguments in favor of horse as food, e.g., why waste the meat of an animal that would be killed anyway?

And then, after making a case that could have qualified him as a rep for the horse meat industry, he paused and said, "But horses are different."

So are cultures, which is one reason Americans revere horses the way that, say, Indian Hindus revere cows. When it comes to what we kill and what we eat, we'll never erase all the differences or contradictions that mark us as individuals or cultures. We can, however, be more conscious, which is why the question of killing horses for food should at least make us stop and think.
Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune