Published: November 3, 2003
LOCAL NEWS: Rockford Register Star
Billboard denounces practice
Equine lovers are divided on using the animal for meat

By MELISSA BIRKS‚ Rockford Register Star
In Belvidere, a 34-year-old mare named Molly folds to her knees in the shade of a tree and dies. Her owner feels guilty paying someone $250 to take her carcass away but at least knows Molly died at home on her terms.

In Colorado, a teenage Appaloosa named Delilah has proven incorrigible. She’s unruly, even dangerous. Her owner takes her to an auction knowing that Delilah probably is headed to a slaughterhouse.

The stories happened years apart, several states apart, to two horse owners who will never know each other and, if put together in a room, would consider the other an alien species.

So it is with the question of what to do with old horses.

Horse lovers are divided: Put the animal out of its misery? Let it die on its own? Send its body to a rendering plant where it will be turned into pet food or cosmetics? Or have it slaughtered for someone’s dinner in Europe?

Now, the debate has made its presence known in the Rock River Valley in the form of two 12-by-25-foot billboards, one on Riverside Boulevard in Loves Park, the other on Illinois 120 in Woodstock, that decry slaughtering horses for people to eat.

“Keep America’s Horses In The Stable And Off the Table!” they read.

The billboards’ sponsor, a Pennsylvania-based group called the Equine Protection Network, chose the Rockford area because it’s close to DeKalb, home to one of three slaughterhouses in the country that sell horse meat overseas for food.

“If you have love for that animal, how could you send it” to a slaughterhouse, wonders Amy Walker, who owned Molly.

“Guilty as charged,” says Frank Bowman, who owned Delilah. “I have sold horses knowing full and well they’re going to slaughter, and they have. You recognize that fact. It’s a personal choice.”

Illinois has about 200,000 horses, fifth in the nation. The debate over what to do with animals like Molly and Delilah has everything to do with culture, companionship, business and the ancient relationship between man and the beast that has carried him on its back for centuries.

Even politicians have gotten into the act, with one U.S. representative and one Illinois state representative this year floating similar laws that would essentially ban exporting American horse meat for food. Both proposals remained stalled.

“It’s 100 percent a cultural issue. Americans don’t slaughter and eat our domestic animals, our pets and companions,” said Cathleen Doyle, of the California-based HoofPAC.

Sheryl King, director of Equine Studies at Southern Illinois University, said she doesn’t want to debate who eats what protein in what country.

“What I’m debating is how can we create a system in the United States where horses are given the best care and given the best and dignified end,” King said.

The Horsemen’s Council of Illinois, a Springfield-based lobbying group for the industry, did a “lot of soul-searching” before it endorsed the sale of slaughtered horses for meat, said Bowman, its board president.

“The industry is split 50-50. It’s as divisive to the horse industry as maybe something like abortion is to the general society,” Bowman said. “There are two camps: People who view them as livestock and people who view them as companion animals.”

‘In the stables’

Children who learned to ride at Walker’s Marquis Stables loved Molly. She was gentle and put up with kicks of small leather-booted feet and frenetic tugs of little hands on the reins.

Walker wasn’t home the Sunday afternoon Molly died. She came home and, not knowing strict regulations for burying horses, sent for the rendering service. Walker would never consider taking a live horse to a slaughterhouse for meat or anything else.

“It’s not even the death part — it’s going there. I have seen so many horses be in fear,” Walker said. “I’ve been in places where horses are in bad situations. You see the look in their eyes, the fear that they have.”

Animals like Molly, you don’t turn into dinner, said Christine Berry, head of the Equine Protection Network.

An anonymous donor put up the cash for an initial 14 billboards across the country this fall. Since then, new donations have resulted in four more billboards.

The network wanted to place the Illinois billboards in DeKalb, but spaces there were taken, so they chose surrounding cities. The billboards went up in mid-October and should be there for a month.

Berry hopes the billboards will enlighten millions of Americans who have no clue that horse flesh is considered a delicacy in other countries.

Two slaughterhouses that prepare horse meat for human consumption are in Texas. Cavel International in DeKalb operated for years before burning down in April 2002. When it reopens early next year, it will be the third.

France, Belgium and Japan are major consumers. Search under “horse meat” on the Internet and you can find enough recipes for Kazakhstan favorites such as Shuzhuk (uses horse guts) or Zhaya (made of horse’s hip) to fill a cookbook.

“Our culture determines what we eat,” Berry said from Friedensburg, Pa. “We’re not telling people in foreign countries what to eat. We just don’t want you eating our horses.”

Berry’s group borrowed its slogan from a successful 1988 California campaign by HoofPAC to get voter approval of a referendum prohibiting the slaughter or export of horses for human consumption.

Doyle, HoofPAC’s founder, said she considered a similar drive in Illinois but this state does not allow for referendums to pass laws.

“I feel (Illinois) represents America,” Doyle said from Sun Valley, Calif. “The location, the culture of the state, even though it is home of a slaughter plant, I feel it’s a good, solid state.”

Doyle said her group has polled across the nation.

“Whether you’re in the East, the West Coast, the Midwest, the numbers don’t vary: 80 percent want our horses protected.”

On the table

James Tucker has been interviewed by enough reporters, quoted enough, to know that there is no nice way to describe how horses die at Cavel International.

“It’s humane slaughter, approved by the government,” said Tucker, who is Cavel’s controller.

Cavel buys horses from so-called “killer buyers,” who get them at auctions around the country. Horses come to the block old, blind, lame, tired. They come strong and healthy, maybe unsuitable for riding. For whatever reason, the owner has relinquished the animal.

Cavel supporters, such as King from Southern Illinois University, say they’ve been inside Cavel and, while it’s not pretty, what happens there is not inhumane.

They also say slaughterhouses serve an ugly reality in the equine world: owners who are unable, or unwilling, to pay to keep “Old Blue” alive. They don’t want to — or can’t — pay a veterinarian to euthanize the animal or for a rendering service to dispose of it.

So they turn to auctions, getting rid of the horse for the going per-pound rate.

Take away places like Cavel and “a good number of people are just going to turn ‘Old Blue’ out to fend for himself and die a horrible death. I don’t want to see that happen,” King said.

Bowman agrees. The Horsemen’s Council of Illinois recently published a position statement on the issue, saying slaughtering horses for human consumption should be an option for “the overall health” of the industry.

Bowman’s business is horse breeding. He has 30 horses. For him and other breeders, the issue boils down to economics.

Some beasts like Delilah, which Bowman worked with for years before auctioning, can probably never be sold as recreational animals. Some mares become infertile and end up financially draining as they just “sit there and eat hay.”

Sometimes, economics and heart find common ground.

Bowman tells the story of Old Glory, a 32-year-old bay fox trotter that had given him foals for 24 years. She was tired. She had lost her teeth. Her muscle mass was fading. To put her through another winter wasn’t fair.

A few weeks ago, Bowman put Old Glory to sleep.

“That’s a hard decision, too,” he said. “That’s a personal decision, too.”

He buried her right there on the farm because “she’d been so good to me.”


Contact:; 815-987-1361

Copyright Rockford Register Star

Billboard denounces practice
Support? Yes, but we’ll pass on meal

On the Web

* Barrington-based Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society

* Political action group that led a successful California referendum banning the slaughter or exporting of horse meat for human consumption.

* Springfield-based lobbying group for the horse industry; site has a position statement on use of horse meat for food.

* www.saveAmericasHorses. com: Web site for the Equine Protection Network, which has sponsored 18 billboards across the country decrying the use of horse meat for food

Horses and the law

Here’s what Illinois law says about handling dead horses:

* What to do when your horse dies: Rendering services, which process dead horses into pet food and other items, charge a range of prices, usually around $200. You can bury your horse, but be prepared to follow specific requirements on, among other things, the depth of the grave and its location near streams, wells and neighbors. You must bury the carcass within 24 hours of the animal’s death. You also can have the horse cremated.

* Slaughtering horses for meat: Nothing in the law prohibits Illinois residents from eating horse meat. Slaughterhouses must be licensed by the state to process horse meat, used only for animal feed. Plants that are federally licensed, however, can slaughter horses for meat. “It is possible for a facility to be located in Illinois and produce horse meat for human consumption if it is licensed and inspected by the federal government,” said Jeff Squibb, of the state Department of Agriculture.

* How Cavel fits in: Cavel International in DeKalb has federal and state licenses. It slaughters horses for human consumption and other uses. Once it reopens next year, Cavel will be only the third slaughterhouse in the country to prepare horses for meat sold in other countries.
On the political front

* U.S. Rep. John Sweeny, R-N.Y., introduced legislation in February that would prohibit the slaughter of American horses for human consumption. H.R. 857 remains stalled in committee.

* In Illinois, Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, has introduced similar legislation.

Off to retirement

Some places will take horses that are old, injured or unwanted. Here are a few local sites:

* Creekside Stables Rehab and Rescue: Roscoe; 815-623-6784.

* Havilah Retirement Horse Farm: Pearl City; for-profit; board costs $250 a month; 443-2645.

Amy Walker said she would not like to see the Cavel International horse slaughterhouse open in DeKalb and would not send any of her horses to the house no matter how old the animals become. “There are people who say that this shouldn’t happen.” Cavel controller James Tucker says. “In the same breath, they’re saying to a farmer that he can’t take a horse to a slaughterhouse. The farmer may have a different idea.”
View full-sized photo

Cavel International in DeKalb is expected to process about 100 horses a day for food and other uses when it reopens next year. A fire in 2002 closed it.