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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- With the dramatic capture and extensive news coverage of longtime regional fugitive Ralph "Bucky" Phillips on Friday, those readers among you who've been following the horse slaughter controversy on these pages may have missed a big development.

Just before the weekend, the House of Representatives voted to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. If the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act gets through the unpredictable Senate, and President George Bush signs it into law, it would probably shut down the three foreign-owned and much-criticized horse abattoirs in the United States -- two in Texas and one in Illinois. More than 90,000 U.S. horses annually -- from pets to plugs to racers to draft to show stock to cow-chasers -- were killed in the trio of plants in recent years.

Just before the vote, former House member Charles Stenholm, a Texas Democrat and currently the powerful lobbyist for groups opposed to the slaughter prohibition, predicted "a very close vote -- there's no question about that. ... I believe we will have the votes to defeat H.R. 503."

Stenholm was once famous for his accurate congressional vote-counting abilities, but no longer. He and fellow opponents got thundered. The final count was 263-146 in favor of banning the slaughter of American horses for overseas dinner plates -- mostly in France and Japan, but also in Holland, Italy and Switzerland. Even famous champions of Triple Crown events are not immune. Japanese gourmands -- it is considered a delicacy there -- actually devoured Ferdinand, a popular mid-1980s Kentucky Derby winner.

Jubilant backers of the slaughter prevention bill should not be complacent, nor even optimistic. The Senate has not scheduled action on a similar version, and Congress intends to finish its current session by the end of this month, come hell or high water.

It was the incredible late-summer phone and mail bombardment of on-the-fence House members by bill-backers from humane groups, thoroughbred owners, breeders and everyday horse-lovers that seems to have turned the tide and frightened vote-counting members of Congress up for November re-election that they might offend significant numbers of constituents.

Even if it clears the Senate, recall that Bush is a Texan (where two of the profitable slaughterhouses are located) with lots of cattle-rancher friends, and while he rarely vetoes legislative proposals, he may well kill this one with a stroke of his pen.

It will probably take a similar avalanche of calls, letters, e-mails and communications -- aimed at senators and the White House -- to create the law.

One would think cattlemen would actually support the bill in that it cuts down on the gustatory competition as far as meat is concerned. The somewhat idealistic and mild bill, after all, would not actually outlaw the killing and eating of horses in general.

The wording only prohibits the shipping, transportation, donation or selling of horses for slaughter for human consumption. Diligent black market entrepreneurs can find a way around it, I'm sure. If the French still have their hearts set upon it, dealers could soon be trading horsemeat for heroin. (See 30-year-old movie "The French Connection" with Gene Hackman.)

However, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American Cattleman's Association and similar ranch groups spent good money to hire Stenholm to oppose the ban, and beef cattle interests actually forwarded the ridiculous argument during floor debate (through friendly representatives) that this prohibition would be the "first step toward forced vegetarianism."

My ribs are splitting. As if that could happen in this country of devout carnivores, of whom I am one, I might add. I love a good steak, and so do many of the other ban-supporters who contact me. While the vote was being reported, I was actually in a restaurant here (The Beef 'n' Barrel) with horse-respecting friends consuming delicious roast beef on kimmelweck sandwiches.

Opponents of the bill also argued its passage would subject unwanted horses to "neglect and cruelty" because they would no longer be slaughtered when considered unloved or useless. It is to laugh. It is to cry. This lame argument reminds me of the same loonball logic forwarded by generals during the Vietnam War when American troops under orders were routinely and successfully torching South Vietnam villages in order to "save them" for the populace of our allies.

Riiiight. Let's kill these animals to keep them from future "cruelty."

The slaughterhouses in question don't exactly treat these horses to a walk in the park, you know -- even as they end their existence. They employ Cruelty Hall of Fame methods.

First, the trusting animals are routinely trucked long distances to their common fate in trailers designed for smaller species -- cramped trailers that don't allow the horses to fully stand up or even keep their balance. They often arrive at the plants with broken legs and multiple bruises. Bill-backers showed gruesome photos of horses with faces cut, contused, abraded, bloodied and swollen from banging into parts of the conveyance.

Second, the workers who are supposed to stun the creatures into an unconscious state with bolt guns so they won't feel being torn apart are often either drunk or uncaring, according to federal inspectors, so their aim is without result or the animal rears or shies, but the assembly line does not stop. That would cut into profit, don't you know?

The horse is snagged around one hind leg and quickly hoisted into the air upside down, frequently still shrieking, thrashing and contorting to escape. No matter. A butcher with an electric chain saw cuts the animal -- often alive and still conscious -- into quarters.

And the beat goes on. Now, all you stalwart horse slaughter fans who have been smart enough to e-mail me with imaginative name-calling and scabrous insults (yet not brave enough to identify yourselves or vituperate me to my face), use a little Internet ingenuity and surf around until you find available pictures and video of all this.

An equally stupid urging for defeat was offered by Colorado Democrat John Salazar, who lamented the result of this legislation would make our cherished American citizens subsidize the saving of their horses because they'd have to pay more taxes to enforce the ban. This laughable attempt at emotional blackmail was met with observations that they already are subsidizing the slaughter they don't want through unfair taxes. One of the foreign plants, because of poorly written tax forgiveness laws that are supposed to encourage foreign investment, paid a mere $5 in taxes last year.

Other feeble arguments in opposition include the equally specious labeling of this legislation as an attack on personal property rights (if you treat your "property" like this, you don't deserve to attain it in the first place), and the loss of butchering jobs it will engender.

Don't hand me that. If you are one of the few 200 or so total workers employed at all three horse-kill plants, here's the solution: Too bad, find another job! (You probably didn't like this one, anyway. And if you did, you can be out of work forever, for all I care.)

Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer bitched that House leaders were wasting time arguing about horses when they should be attending to bills that affect humans. This, in a chamber whose pampered members actually work a fraction of the year, devote most of their energy to getting re-elected, have done practically nothing for the good of the order in two years, and spend enough hours to easily constitute several weeks' worth of precious time on the House floor cynically praising each other in polite posturing and blowing verbal wet kisses to colleagues they deride and poke all manner of fun at in private conversation.

The House debate was attended by celebrities backing the bill, among them movie star Bo Derek. Willie Nelson, the country immortal, has been raising support for the bill, and Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens paid for a national survey that reflected impressive national support for the ban by Americans.

Finally, another angle has been mentioned increasingly in this now-national debate. Honest veterinarians will tell you horses, from farm animals to thoroughbreds, are routinely shot up and pilled with an amazing variety of muscle relaxants, pain relievers, narcotics, anti-inflammatories, stimulants, diuretics and other medicines -- some of which are highly carcinogenic and some of which trigger other illnesses in humans besides cancer. It is actually illegal under existing law to ship such contaminated meats abroad.

If the incredibly inefficient U.S. Department of Agriculture were doing its job, it would already have put the horse-killing plants out of business long ago, but the USDA has already pulled off clever and successful end runs around previous congressional directives to do so. I wrote about this extensively earlier this year. Whether from my columns or medical sources or somewhere else, the French are catching onto this. It is now very, very difficult, report Americans who have been to France recently, to find horse meat in French restaurants -- where it was touted and sold unabashedly for years. You can, however, still purchase horsemeat in unregulated and uninspected butcher shops there.

Perhaps the European horsemeat profiteers who are bemoaning the prospective loss of income in their American plants can go home, put on the white aprons, sharpen the cleaver, and make a credible -- if less lucrative -- living.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com September 11 2006