Horse slaughter evokes outrage

Web Posted: 10/02/2007 03:19 AM CDT

Lisa Sandberg
Express-News Austin Bureau

AUSTIN — A surge in exports of unwanted horses across the border for slaughter has horrified animal welfare advocates, who say they will redouble efforts for a law to ban shipments of horses to Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses.

Court rulings this year closed the only three American horse-slaughter plants, including two plants in North Texas.

Since January, so-called "killer buyers" who buy unwanted horses at auctions have shipped 48,000 horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The horse meat is consumed in Mexico, Europe and Japan.

U.S. exports to Mexican slaughterhouses are up by 369 percent.

The San Antonio Express-News on Sunday chronicled the crude method used to kill horses at a plant in Juárez, Mexico, where slaughterhouse workers stab horses in the spine until they are disabled. Horses are then strung up from a hind leg and their throats are slit.

The grim story prompted outrage from activists and congressmen who have tried to ban slaughter through the Horse Protection Act.

"If members of Congress saw these photos and read the story, I think we'd get some immediate action," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, a horse slaughter opponent.

But given the current debates in Congress today — children's health insurance, the war in Iraq — Gonzalez said he doesn't think the federal ban, which would protect American horses from commercial slaughter, here and across U.S. borders, will be a priority.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat who opposes horse slaughter, said he's received neither calls nor e-mails from constituents since the proposed ban was reintroduced earlier this year. The same bill died in Congress last year.

Readers expressed mostly horror upon learning that the closure this year of U.S. horse slaughter operations hasn't spared American horses from winding up as foreign entrees.

More than 100,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered last year for overseas dinner plates, according to government figures. About 15,000 fewer horses overall have been slaughtered this year, but exports to the foreign slaughterhouses are way up.

Sunday's newspaper report documented conditions at a municipal plant in Juárez, where horses were hacked to death with knives, rather than stunned with the captive bolt guns that were common at U.S. plants. The "puntilla" method appears to be standard at older slaughter plants throughout Mexico.

"Thank you for bringing this atrocity to the front page," one reader wrote. "I want to know what I, as an individual and animal lover, can do to end this horrible practice?"

Those who lobbied unsuccessfully to keep horse slaughter plants open in the U.S. say they warned their opponents that horses would suffer far more if the plants were closed and they were exported.

"It's predictable," said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, who went to work as a lobbyist for the horse slaughter industry after losing his seat in Congress and now is a spokesman for the Horse Welfare Association.

Stenholm said he agreed with animal welfare advocates that there is no easy way to kill a horse. "If you're going to prematurely end a horse's life, it's going to be difficult. No matter what," he said. "Nothing is perfect, but the captive bolt gun is the best of all options."

Animal advocates say the killing method and the conditions horses endure as they are shipped across the country should not be used as an argument to reopen American slaughter operations. The solution, they say, is to ban horses from being slaughtered in this country — or exported and killed in Mexico and Canada.

Operations ceased at the U.S. slaughterhouses after various courts upheld state bans in Texas and Illinois.

"The urgency is in passing the federal legislation," said Chris Heyde, deputy legislative director with the Animal Welfare Institute in Virginia. "Until we pass the federal legislation, nothing has changed."

Advocates argue that horses should be spared from slaughter because they've become more like companion animals, like cats and dogs, and have played an important role in U.S. history.

They also contend that commercial slaughter was cruel even when done in this country. Because they tend to move around a lot, have narrow foreheads and brains set farther back in their skull than cows, horses sometimes have to be hit multiple times with a captive bolt gun before dying.

Said Gonzalez: "I don't have a perfect solution to the problem, but I do know that slaughtering horses for the retail market goes totally contrary to the values established in this country. It's why we don't eat horse meat."

News Researcher Julie Domel contributed to this report.