DeKalb horse slaughter facility decried

Attacks baseless, operators say

By Lynn Van Matre
Tribune staff reporter

November 16, 2003

Soon after a horse slaughterhouse in DeKalb burned down last year, its Belgian owners announced plans to rebuild. But as the walls go up on the facility, scheduled to open next year, activists and some legislators are working to shut down Cavel International for good and keep thousands of American horses from winding up on European dinner menus.

State Rep. Robert S. Molaro (D-Chicago) hopes to pass legislation during this month's General Assembly veto session that would outlaw horse slaughter in Illinois and close one of the three remaining horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. According to a Molaro spokesman, the legislator learned of the issue from activists such as Gail Vacca, a DeKalb horse trainer who organized an anti-Cavel vigil in a local park.

"If the Belgians and French want to eat horses, let them eat their own," Vacca said. "Horses never have been raised for food in America. They're companion animals."

Unlike most Americans, who have little problem eating beef and pork but recoil at equine edibles, many Europeans and Japanese have no qualms about horsemeat. Commonly sold in supermarkets and butcher shops abroad, the lean, sweetish meat also is served in restaurants in a variety of forms, from steaks to raw strips. Though the bulk of European horsemeat comes from animals sold by farmers in Poland and Romania, American horsemeat is considered superior because U.S. horses generally receive better food and veterinary care.

"It's a cultural thing," noted Stephen Cohen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the meat industry and classifies horses as livestock. "It's not illegal in this country to consume horsemeat, but most of it is exported."

For Cavel International, opposition from horse activists is an old story. In addition to the state bill, a federal anti-horse slaughter act first introduced in the U.S. Congress last year was re-introduced in early 2003. The most recent action on the bill, known as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, was in March, when it was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Trade.

"We're not terribly concerned about the legislation," Cavel project manager James Tucker said. "On one hand, [outlawing horse slaughter] would solve the problem for the very few people who are concerned about it. But you'd be defining how a farmer or horse owner could dispose of his animals, and I can't imagine a legislature doing that. We're not forcing people to bring their horses here."

During the 2002-03 fiscal year, 41,877 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. for human consumption, according to the USDA, down from 42,663 in the previous fiscal year at facilities in DeKalb, Ft. Worth and Kaufman, Texas. Typically purchased by slaughterhouse buyers at large livestock auctions or smaller farm auctions throughout the U.S., they range from worn-out Amish work horses to foals born to animals used in the production of a female hormone-replacement drug.

Since the early 1990s, the number of U.S. slaughterhouses has fallen from about a dozen, mostly due to industry consolidation and what horse activists say is growing public awareness. The European-owned Texas slaughterhouses are facing legal challenges from activists who say the operations are illegal under a little-noticed 1949 state law; the matter is in the courts.

"The anti-horse slaughter movement is gathering momentum because of the media attention," said Chris Heyde, policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, a non-profit group in Washington. "Most people don't know that the horse-slaughter industry exists, but once they do, they want to support our efforts. Everybody loves horses. They're part of our history."

Heyde added that several animal-welfare groups, thoroughbred auction houses and horse-rescue charities recently formed the National Horse Protection Coalition to drum up support for the anti-slaughter cause. Thoroughbred lovers in particular were outraged when it was learned this summer that Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, wound up in a Japanese slaughterhouse after his Japanese owners found him to be a poor stud.

"A U.S. law wouldn't have saved Ferdinand, but [his death] drew attention to the issue," said Heyde.

In addition to cultural issues, activists argue that the slaughtering process is inhumane and that--unlike cattle and hogs--horses must be trucked long distances to the few existing equine processing plants after being purchased at auctions. At the slaughterhouse, animals are killed with guns that drive metal bolts into their brains, then are butchered and shipped to wholesalers abroad.

According to Cohen, federal regulations call for a USDA veterinarian to be on site at all slaughterhouses, including cattle, hog and horse facilities. The American Association of Equine Practitioners, the nation's largest professional organization of horse veterinarians, advocates the humane treatment of all horses. However, a position paper approved by the group's directors states that "the processing of unwanted horses is currently a necessary aspect of the equine industry" and calls human consumption of horsemeat "a cultural and personal issue."

Horse lovers also argue that slaughterhouse buyers often mislead farmers and other horse owners as to what will become of their animals, a claim disputed by Tucker.

"Our buyers are well-known as being buyers for a slaughter plant," Tucker said. "If someone brings a horse to auction and says they don't want it to go to slaughter, we don't buy it.

"It gets my goat a little bit when [horse activist] groups represent this as a huge issue for the populace," Tucker added. "A very small number of people are adamantly opposed to Cavel reopening. But everybody else that I talk to is either supportive or ambivalent."

The company had rented the building since 1987 and purchased it shortly before the fire. Cavel's parent company, Velda Group, had attempted to buy another building in DeKalb in 1998 but was turned down by officials because of the site's proximity to a residential area. In 1999, the firm tried to buy a vacant cattle slaughterhouse in Big Foot, a small village in McHenry County, but was rejected by the County Board after several hearings attended by hundreds of county residents. Among other objections, Cavel opponents feared that the region's large equine population could lead to horses being stolen and sold to the facility.

Cavel expects to be back in operation early next year in DeKalb, in a 16,000-square-foot plant designed to slaughter up to 100 horses each day. Before shutting down last year, the facility in an industrial park slaughtered about 15,000 horses each year and generated more than $10 million annually, Tucker said. In addition to buying at auction, the firm occasionally buys horses from local farmers, typically paying $200 to $300 per animal, according to Tucker.

The new plant is scheduled to provide jobs for as many as 40 people, one of several reasons why state Rep. David Wirsing, who represents the heavily agricultural DeKalb area, says he would oppose passage of anti-slaughter legislation.

"We slaughter pork and beef and poultry in this country and export it," said Wirsing, who described the Cavel reopening as "not a hot issue" in DeKalb. "Exporting horsemeat is not that different from something we are doing already."

Wirsing, who comes from an agricultural background and has owned horses, said that for many farmers the decision to sell an unwanted horse to a slaughterhouse buyer is a matter of economics.

"We're not talking about 25 bucks to have a vet put down a horse and have the carcass hauled away," Wirsing said. "I've heard costs quoted as high as $800. If I had a horse I didn't want because of age or other considerations, and a slaughterhouse would pay me for it, I would sell it."

"In this country, we have a strong tradition of attachment to horses," Wirsing said. "But nobody thinks about what happens to the horse when it can't be used any more. Some people look at slaughtering horses for food as part of the life cycle."

Vacca, who owns horses, is not one of those folks.

"There are hundreds of horse-rescue groups around that will help people place a horse if they don't want to keep it," Vacca said. "Horses are raised by humans; we teach them to trust us and we trust them. Slaughtering horses for food isn't anything like slaughtering cattle or sheep or pigs."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune