Up Close: The business of slaughtering horses


By Doug Miller / 11 News

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Horses play as big a role in Texas history as cowboys and the Alamo. So you might be surprised to hear that Texas lawmakers are now considering a bill that would legalize an unusual business.

What looks like a round up on a ranch is really a rescue operation for dozens of wild horses. Wild horses, like the one named Sundance by the folks at Habitat for Horses, are gradually trained to trust people.

Sundance, like most of the other animals at the Wild Horse Foundation, came from Nevada. Government officials decided they had to clear the horses out. "Originally the state had decided they were going to round them up and send them off to slaughter," said Jerry Finch with Habitat for Horses. "What they call the meat buyers."

Yes, meat buyers.

Horses like those rescued by Habitat for Horses are a prime commodity to people who sell horses for slaughter to be eaten by humans.

"There's a place for slaughter, certainly, in the beef industry, in the pork industry, but Americans don't eat horses," said Finch.

Still, Americans do kill horses and sell horsemeat in unexpected places.

A sign near Fort Worth said it is where the west begins. In Fort Worth pictures of horses decorate banners and buildings, horseshoe prints show up on sidewalks and shops sell horse souvenirs.

Texans, by tradition, are a people who revere horses. So it is ironic that this state, and more specifically Fort Worth, are at the epicenter of a legal battle over the last two horse slaughterhouses in the United States.

In an industrial area just outside downtown Fort Worth sits a business called Beltex. Just looking at the building, you'd never guess it is one of the nation's last horse slaughterhouses.

And in Kaufman, southeast of Dallas, sits Dallas Crown, the other surviving equine slaughterhouse.

The two plants together kill about 50,000 horses a year, and export horsemeat to other countries, even though the Texas attorney general has ruled it's illegal.

"Right now, in Texas, the law is the same for everyone. You cannot slaughter here and eat here, eat the horses here," said Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Ann Diamond. "You cannot slaughter them for export. And you cannot slaughter them elsewhere and then bring them here to sell them."

"People in Asia and France grew up eating horse meat all their lives," said John Lineburger, the attorney for the slaughterhouses. "And although repugnant to many Americans, had we have grown up eating it then we wouldn't find it that way."

Tarrant County's district attorney wants to shut Beltex down. But Fort Worth's horse slaughterhouse is still in business.

"They're still in business because before the prosecution could be filed, they sued the district attorney to stop us from prosecuting," said Diamond. "And we're in federal court now."

And in the court of public opinion animal welfare activists circulate a videotape that was shot years ago at a horse slaughterhouse. "This is an old film of an unknown slaughterhouse," said Diamond. The location is not identified. And attorneys for the Texas companies say this is not the way they kill horses. But animal welfare activists point to the gruesome videotape as evidence of what they consider the cruelty behind slaughtering horses.

Of course, it is a stark contrast to the striking image of healthy horses racing around a track. But the simple fact is humans have long used dead horses for a variety of purposes - from fertilizer to pharmaceuticals.

And for many decades America's pastime was played with baseballs covered with horsehide.

And even animal welfare activists sadly concede there just aren't enough rescue operations like Habitat for Horses to adopt all of the thousands of unwanted horses Americans decide to dispose of every year.

Defenders of the slaughterhouses argue there needs to be a place and a time to kill.

"I think that would be the same thing as saying there's a time when you need to slaughter your dogs, your cats, your children, the elderly," said Finch. "These, to a lot of people, a lot of horse lovers, are just the same as humans. Sure, they're animals, but they deserve the love and respect of all animals."

Sundance has been saved, tamed and trained. About 50,000 other horses brought to Texas this year won't be so lucky.

The Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill that would legalize slaughtering horses for human consumption, but only if the meat is shipped to foreign countries. That bill is now pending in the state senate.

People hoping to persuade lawmakers to change their minds will hold a vigil at Hermann Square in Houston on May 10, from 7:00 to 9:00 that night.