Breeders' Cup saddled with nagging issue

Web Posted: 10/24/2004 12:00 AM CDT

Paula Hunt
Express-News Staff Writer

GRAND PRAIRIE — The $14 million Breeders' Cup arrives here next Saturday, setting the stage for a strange confluence at Lone Star Park.

Not only will the event showcase the best thoroughbred racehorses in the country, it will serve as a platform for members of an unlikely alliance seeking to stop the slaughter of horses for human consumption; horse lovers will hand out pamphlets at the track decrying the little-known industry.

With two of the three U.S. horse slaughterhouses located in Texas, each less than 45 minutes from the site of the Breeders' Cup, their proximity to the track is a reminder of the thin line horses walk between vastly different fates: glory on the track or ignoble death at a packing plant.

Sometimes, one fate follows the other. Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic, winner was slaughtered for food in Japan in 2002 after he failed at stud. Similar ignominy might await any of the horses in the Breeders' Cup, slaughter opponents say.

The nondescript packing plants — Beltex, in Fort Worth, and Dallas Crown, in Kaufman —slaughter 50,000 horses a year despite a 1949 state agriculture code that outlaws the sale, purchase or transportation of horsemeat with the intent to sell it for human consumption.

While a lawsuit contesting the code awaits a ruling from federal judge Terry Means, Beltex and Dallas Crown continue to operate under an injunction.

Besides thoroughbreds, the 50,062 horses processed for human consumption last year in Texas included quarter horses, mustangs and Arabians.

Whether and how long the plants will be able to operate is anybody's guess. The debate, which has forged unlikely alliances on both sides of the issue, has reached Capitol Hill, where an anti-slaughter bill is stalled in the House Agriculture Committee. The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which effectively would end the horse-slaughter industry in the United States, has received wide bipartisan support but hasn't made it out of committee.

Thoroughbred breeders, animal welfare groups and horse rescue organizations want the bill passed. The American Quarter Horse Association, veterinarian associations and many large agribusiness concerns are among those who want it defeated.

Each side defends its position as acting in the best interest of horses.

Thoroughbred breeders, animal welfare groups and other opponents say that slaughtering horses is barbaric. "Remember Ferdinand" will be the theme of their efforts this week.

"The majority of people think that slaughter is a thing of the past," said Sherillyn Flick, an anti-horse slaughter activist. "When people find out it's still going on, they're horrified."

Those opposing a ban on horse slaughter point to the re-opening of a plant in Illinois, the only slaughterhouse outside Texas. That plant started up again in June after being destroyed by fire in 2002, proving there not only are plenty of unwanted horses but also a market for their meat, say those who oppose a ban on slaughtering horses.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners states in its position paper that slaughtering horses is "a necessary aspect of the equine industry (that provides) a humane alternative to allowing a horse to continue a life of discomfort or pain and possibly inadequate care or abandonment."

Groups that are against proposed anti-slaughter legislation say it doesn't, among other things, address costs and standards of care related to what they believe will be the tens of thousands of unwanted horses abandoned by their owners and left to the public to pay for.

"There's nothing wrong with" slaughter, said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. "It's part of agriculture. If we don't kill them, here they'll take them to Mexico, and I guarantee you slaughter is not nearly as humane as it is here.

"I've eaten horsemeat," Geren said. "It's not too bad."

Geren co-sponsored a bill during the last Texas legislative session that would have legalized the sale of horsemeat for human consumption in the Lone Star State.

The bill's other sponsor was Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, whose district includes Dallas Crown. It died in committee and Geren does not expect it to be resurrected when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Difficult position

Perhaps no other group with a stake in the debate is as conflicted as the thoroughbred industry, an outspoken opponent of horse slaughter that finds itself in an uncomfortable position this week.

American Airlines, the official airline of the Breeders' Cup, is also the largest cargo carrier of horsemeat out of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

And a charity Breeders' Cup gala set for Friday is set to be held at the Fort Worth Zoo, which feeds horsemeat products to its exotic animals.

But perhaps nothing is more ironic than the fact that some of the horses running Saturday eventually could end up stunned with a captive bolt, skinned and split open with an electric saw so that their meat can be processed. All this less than an hour from where a crowd of more than 51,000 people once cheered them toward glory.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 25 of this year, 44,512 horses were slaughtered in Texas and at the third plant, in Dekalb, Ill. All three plants are owned by Belgian companies that export all the meat overseas, primarily to Europe, Mexico and Japan.

"Horses are no longer used in pet food," said Steve Payne, director of public affairs for the Pet Food Institute. "For 20 years or more, none of our member companies have used it. A lot of consumers perceive horses as pets and we are in the business of keeping pets healthy. We didn't want to use something in our products that people would be uncomfortable with."

Most of the horses brought to the plants are supplied by independent contractors — or "killer buyers" as slaughter opponents call them — who buy the animals at auction and receive preferential pricing for providing a steady supply.

Individuals also can sell horses to the plants, where they receive 5 to 30 cents a pound, depending on the size and health of the horse.

Beltrex Vice President Dick Koehler says it is in the best interest of the plants to treat horses well. A veterinarian from the USDA and two USDA safety and sanitation inspectors, he points out, are on site every time horses arrive.

But critics of slaughtering horses say that despite the fact that the slaughter industry is heavily regulated, the system is cruel and unnecessary; while the number of horses slaughtered has dropped nearly 85 percent since 1989, there has been no corresponding rise in abuse cases, they argue.

At the center of so much controversy, Beltex and Dallas Crown have kept a relatively low profile until recently.

The anti-slaughter bill in Congress and growing opposition to the horse slaughter industry have compelled their officials to take a more public stance.

The two plants have published a 13-page pamphlet, "The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act — Death to an Industry" and started a web site ( to defend their business.

The horse slaughter industry also has garnered support from the Horse Welfare Coalition, a group of horse, veterinary and agribusiness associations that is fighting the House bill.

The American Quarter Horse Association has been one of the bill's biggest opponents, though officials estimate that half the horses slaughtered each year are quarter horses.

Anti-slaughter advocates in Texas have paid close attention to the actions of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. The association employs two brand inspectors at the plants as part of a program instituted by the state in 1997 to ensure that no stolen horses are slaughtered.

Some who oppose the ban on horse slaughter cite what they see as the 1997 code's implicit approval of the industry, which they think supersedes the 1949 code by mentioning horse slaughter as if it is an accepted practice.

As part of the program, Beltex and Dallas Crown pay $5 for each horse that arrives at their plants: $3 goes to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and $2 goes to the Texas A&M Cooperative Extension for its stolen horse prevention education program.

When asked about the propriety of a public institution's involvement in a venture that might be illegal, Dan Mayes of the Texas A&M extension office cited the 1997 code.

Mayes said that in the past year and a half, the extension office has collected almost $200,000 in fees from the slaughter plants. It's believed the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has collected almost $275,000 during that same time.

However, neither the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association nor Texas A&M extension knows how many stolen horses — if any — have been recovered through the program.

Matt Brockman, executive vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, defended the program as a powerful deterrent to selling stolen horses for slaughter.

"We would have the same position whether or not we were involved in the inspection system," said Brockman. "If you're going to steal a horse, you are not going to take it a place where someone is watching."

While both sides of the horse slaughter issue have taken firm stands, there is still dissension within each.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, is a veterinarian who introduced a companion Senate bill to the anti-slaughter bill in the House. Yet the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association have been two of the principal opponents of the legislation.

The Indiana Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association has cracked the almost universal solidarity of the breeders' stand against horse slaughter by joining the anti-ban Horse Welfare Coalition.

At Lone Star Park, the anti-slaughter group Fund for Horses originally had planned to hold a rally outside the gates to protest the plants in Fort Worth and Kaufman. But after discussions with track and Breeders' Cup officials, it was agreed that the group could hand out anti-slaughter literature inside the gates.

One critic of a ban on slaughter says he can't understand how such a staid and traditional group as the thoroughbred industry could align itself with the "animal rights activists and wackos."

It is an observation that Vivian Farrell, president of the Fund for Horses, adamantly disagrees with.

"The thoroughbred industry could not have been more supportive of this issue or of us," Farrell said. "We're going to be there to raise awareness and answer questions and let people decide for themselves. This isn't about animal rights; this is about the suffering of noble creatures that helped build this country. Our only agenda is to get a ban on horse slaughter."
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