WASHINGTON - A coalition of celebrities, race track leaders and others have called in from across the country hoping their voices push forward legislation that would end or limit the slaughter of wild horses.
Lawmakers have been pushing for years to stop wild horses and burros from being killed at three U.S. slaughterhouses that send the meat overseas for consumption. The effort picked up steam after Congress last year replaced a 34-year-old ban on selling wild mustangs and burros with a provision that allows the sale of older, unwanted horses.
Supporters of two proposed measures - one that would stop the commercial sale of wild horses and burros and one that would ban horse slaughter in the United States - are trying to pull together as many people as possible to back their cause. So far, they have pulled together stars ranging from country music singers to a "Desperate Housewives" actress.
"When you've got a coalition ranging from Willie Nelson to Nicollette Sheridan, we've got something for everyone," said Nancy Perry, the Humane Society of the United States' vice president of government affairs.
The change in the ban, quietly tacked onto a spending package by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., doesn't condone slaughter. But 41 of the nearly 1,000 wild mustangs sold and delivered this year were brought to slaughterhouses.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., a lead sponsor on both House measures, said that confirmed his fears that allowing sales would lead to some horses being slaughtered.
The Interior Department this week stopped delivering mustangs to buyers while it investigates whether the slaughter violates a federal contract requiring the animals to be treated humanely.
Horse advocates have solicited comments from actors - including Richard Gere and Mary Tyler Moore - and have drawn support from horse racing leaders and others.
Thomas Meeker, the president of Churchill Downs Inc., parent company of the legendary Kentucky race track, sent a letter of support. Ford Motor Co., maker of the Mustang sports car, this week offered financial support to save the lives of 52 mustangs. And "Weekly Reader," an educational publication geared to elementary and middle school students, included an article on the issue.
Seeking star power to jazz up an issue isn't a new tactic. Last year, for example, actress and horse owner Bo Derek traipsed through the Capitol to gather support for a similar bill.
But even the glitterati haven't been able to counter the powerful opposition of some ranching groups, which say horses eat habitat needed by cattle. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for example, said there is "simply not enough habitat to support the number of horses out there," a spokeswoman said.
And not all horse groups back the proposed legislation. The National Quarter Horse Association believes the government has spent too much to keep unadoptable horses at sanctuaries, and repealing the slaughter ban was a "fiscally responsible" move, said Tim Case, the association's senior manager of public policy.
He said the group also worries about what would happen to the horses that are now slaughtered if the practice was ended.
"Being neglected or abused would be worse than a humane euthanasia," Case said.
No hearings have been scheduled on the proposed legislation, but lawmakers said they'll use other tactics to get their way.
Whitfield and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., this week asked the Bureau of Land Management to stop the sale of horses and develop formal regulations on the new law, a process that would include holding a public comment period.
The bill numbers are H.R. 297 and S. 576; and H.R. 503.
On the Net:
For bill text: http://thomas.loc.gov
Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov