Feb. 17, 2008, 4:21PM
Number of U.S. horses sent to slaughter in Mexico soars

TUCSON, Ariz. More horses are being sent to Mexico for slaughter since last year's closure of three U.S. horse-slaughter plants in Illinois and Texas for violating state laws.

The grueling cross-border journeys stretch for hundreds of miles with horses crammed in double-decker trailers. They face deaths there that are sometimes far more gruesome than they would have been in the United States; some horses have been killed by repeatedly being stabbed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says more than 45,000 horses went to Mexico for slaughter last year, up from about 11,000 the year before.

"People have no place to go with them," said Wayne Earven, a former state livestock inspector who was recently selling a horse at a Willcox auction. "To be real honest with you, we haven't seen the worst of it yet."

The road to Mexican slaughterhouses usually begins at auction, either in Willcox or Benson. From there, horses are bought and taken to El Paso, and eventually across the border to Ciudad Juarez. There, so-called "killer buyers" purchase the animals.

Slaughter plants in the United States use a captive-bolt piston to stun horses; the air pressure shoots a bolt through the horse's skull.

But in Mexico, a number of recent media reports and videos show that horses were being stabbed repeatedly to sever the spinal cord.

Officials at a Juarez slaughterhouse said this month they are now using captive-bolt pistols, but requests to tour the plant were denied.

Animal-rights groups across the country have pushed for legislation to outlaw the export of horses to Mexico for slaughter for human consumption or other purposes.

Versions of the bill are in the U.S. House and Senate. Southern Arizona Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Raul Grijalva, both Democrats, are co-sponsors.

Timothy Cordes, senior staff veterinarian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said a ban would almost certainly do nothing to stop the movement of horses to Mexico.

"Horses are going as riders rather than as killers," he said. "A horse can cross the border as a rider, and once it's in the sworn country it can become anything at that point. There are a number of clever ways to get horses across the border."

Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said the ban could work.

He added that instead of slaughtering horses, some of the healthier animals still could be used on ranches and the rest could live out their lives at horse sanctuaries, such as Equine Voices.

"We believe there are plenty of options for these horses," he said. "For decades the horse industry has used slaughter as a method for culling the over-breeding that they do. They basically are intentionally breeding horses that they know are going to slaughter."

Career cowboy Herb Cook said he's seen how horses are killed in Mexico.

"And it's a lot cruder than in the U.S.," he said. "I think we might as well have the work here. If they are going to be slaughtered, they might as well be slaughtered in this country."