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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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