To kill or not to kill?


Recently, it seems people on both sides of the pond have horse slaughter on the brain. In Europe, the discovery of horsemeat in Ikea’s purportedly all-beef meatballs has countries pointing fingers at each other, trying pin the blame for mislabeled meat on someone else. Ultimately, the issue seems to boil down to different degrees of acceptance of eating horses.

Here in the United States, the question is not “to eat or not to eat,” but rather, “to kill or not to kill.” Horse slaughter has been essentially illegal since 2006, when Congress shut down all slaughterhouses that produced horsemeat for human consumption by blocking spending for federal inspection. The last plant closed a year later. But that federal ban lapsed in 2011. Now, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture processes an application for the country’s first horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico, four federal lawmakers have introduced a bill that would once again ban killing horses for human consumption. It would also prevent would-be sellers from carting horses to slaughterhouses across the border.

Valley Meat Company of Roswell, N.M., put in the application for a horsemeat inspector soon after the ban was lifted. But the USDA stalled, and eventually the company sued, forcing the agency to pick up the pace. The project appears likely to be approved, although recent revelations that the plant disposed of cattle carcasses incorrectly could throw a wrench in the process.

Even though most of Valley Meat’s horsemeat would be exported to places like Mexico, Russia, China and, yes, Europe, the idea of someone, somewhere, eating horses that have been killed in the U.S. for that explicit purpose is unsettling to many Americans. The anti-horse-slaughter law, called the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, appears to be a response to both the European scandal and the proposed New Mexico slaughterhouse; horse and animal rights activists around the country have embraced it.

The reasons for opposing horse slaughter vary, but “the practice of horse slaughter for human consumption is revolting to me as a horse owner, (and) as a consumer,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told E&E News (subscription required). Landrieu also questioned the human health risks of eating horses, some of them retired race horses that had been treated with drugs and other chemicals.

Others argue that slaughtering horses is simply inhumane. "The methods used to kill horses rarely result in quick, painless deaths,” The Humane Society of the United States told The L.A. Times. “Horses often endure repeated stuns or blows and sometimes remain conscious during their slaughter and dismemberment.”

And still others see horses — in particular wild horses — as symbols of the American spirit that simply don’t belong on anyone’s plate. “What happened to the pride we once had, back when we saw wild horses as living symbols of our national heritage?” Mae Lee Sun wrote in High Country News.

But not killing horses has consequences, too. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that the domestic horse slaughter ban unintentionally harmed horses by shifting slaughter over the border to Canada and Mexico, where they are not overseen by USDA inspectors. According to The Wall Street Journal, about 170,000 horses were sent to slaughter in those countries last year.

Other advocates of horse slaughter, like Valley Meat Company owner Rick de los Santos, say horse slaughterhouses are job creators and prevent business from being lost to Mexico. "I've seen 130,000 horses a year on their way to Mexico — they go right through our backyard — and I wanted to tap into the market," he told The L.A. Times. "I could have hired 100 people by now. Everyone in our community agrees we need this type of service. And I'm tired of waiting."

Santos also says he frequently hears from ranchers who have too many horses on their hands -- some of which they can no longer afford to feed -- but nowhere to send them.

The Bureau of Land Management, which spends over $75 million a year managing wild horses and burros, has the same problem. The agency has been reluctant to (knowingly) sell horses to slaughter, despite it now being legal, and as a result, the agency has accumulated thousands of horses rounded up from the range in long-term holding pens with no good place to put them. There are now more wild horses in captivity than in the wild. (Read more about the BLM’s wild horse problem in reporter Dave Phillips’ HCN cover story “Nowhere to Run,” or Lynn Bama’s story “Wild Horses: do they belong in the West?”)

The USDA is urging Congress to reinstate the horse slaughter ban, but says it will have no choice but to provide horsemeat inspectors if that doesn’t happen. Sequestration has already made things difficult for the agency, which will furlough meat inspectors to cut costs. Sen. Landrieu worries that the agency doesn’t have enough money to start a horsemeat inspection program.

In addition to the Roswell, N.M., slaughterhouse, the agency has received several other applications for horsemeat inspectors in Wyoming, Missouri and Oklahoma, so the debate is likely to continue. Ultimately it comes down to perception: “Many of us look at horses as livestock. Others see the horse as a large dog,” Chris Whitney, then-president of the Colorado Unwanted Horse Alliance, told HCN in 2008. “It’s tough to meld the approaches and points of view.”

Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ro Irving

Kimberly  Harris
Kimberly Harris says:
Mar 18, 2013 05:56 PM
My opinion is: Do not kill! There is no such thing as humane horse slaughter. I live in a neighboring town to Roswell. Does this mean I will helplessly watch 130,000 horses a year pass by by back yard on their way to a violent death at the hands of de los Santos? What a horrifying thought.
nancy watson
nancy watson says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:14 AM
Wild horses helped us build this country, and are part of our country's fabric. They have been our pets, our athletes, and helped us get our work done since this country began. They are NOT meant for slaughter, nor are we as a culture prepared to introduce horse meat to our diets. NO HORSE SLAUGHTER IN THE USA!!
pocahontas  day
pocahontas day says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:16 AM
since when did "ranchers" tell the entire country what to do? excuse me- they are not our public officials and i don't really care who they have "lobbying" for them. these people who are pushing for slaughter are the most unethical and dangerous we have. they care nothing for our country and they will knowingly contaminate our food supply. i learned long ago that humane doesn't enter their repertoire (i realize some of them will need a dictionary for "repertoire"). the ignorance in the pro-slaughter community is astounding. but what is even more astounding are the lies. the pro-slaughter community seeks to influence the weak and the uniformed and they have zero factual data to "support" their blatantly false claims. our country does NOT need slaughter, nor does anyone benefit from it- it is economic suidice for the rest of us...however i know slaughter sue is just already salivating by the thought of running to the bank from blood $$ from murdering all of our horses. the american public better wake up b.c sue wallis and her sicko bunch will toss the american public like a wet rag while she caters to foreign investors who will come HERE and ruin OUR land - OUR housing market - OUR economic market - and force unthinkable crimes on us and our horses. rick de los santos couldn't even humanely slaughter cattle and now he wants to slaughter a flight animal? americans will fight the slaughter issue with all we've got so move aside pro-slaughter, you've got a fight on your hands and believe me when i say we out number you, we are better educated than you, and we do NOT want you- take a hike. you are a danger to this country and you are weak, don't under-estimate the power of the american voice. WE are your employers and we can put you out of a job in a snap. stay away from our horses, stay away from our tax dollars, and stay away from our food supply- and for god sakes- stop trying to supply the rest of the world with carcinogenic food. sue wallis has been chased out of every where she goes- she is pursuing Oklahoma b.c she views their legislature as a weakness and she is using them to exploit their politician's backward views- but OK and New Mexico are not a separate country so back-off Sue Wallis, Dave Duquette, as well as you Rick de los Santos, and the OK legislatures- america is on to you so get lost.
Heidi H
Heidi H says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:25 AM
Hmmmm? I see so many holes in the interviews for this article. I will mention 3 of them. A lie I believe is Rick De Los Santos, a whole 100 people working at a slaughterhouse doing a disgusting job no-one wants to do. I highly doubt or believe your entire community needs this slaughterhouse! Second: Ranchers say they have too many horses they can no longer afford to feed? Why are they OVERBREEDING horses, so many they cannot even take care of them? Why not target the worst offenders the AQHA, And the Racing Industry and give them Breed Limits so that they cannot breed more horses than they can personally take care of. If you cant sell them to proper homes than dont breed them. Your the main cause for this discussion of Horse Slaughter in the first place. I personally know of a Quarter Horse Rancher that brags that she is trying to breed the perfect horse and routinely has 40+ mares in foal per year, and admits she disgards the less than perfect brood at auction houses knowing meatbuyers will take them. She hates that she can no longer get more than $1,000 per horse because slaughter became illegal. Its all about greed and money. Thirdly: The BLM states they spend $75 Million dollars per year rounding out Americas Wild Mustangs. Isnt that Our Tax Payer Money they are spending? When more than 80% of Americans are against this, and your using OUR money! Their excuse is "Rounding up all these horses with no good place to put them"? Well how about we take the funding away from you, and you go find another job and leave the Mustangs alone. The Taxpayers will personally asign a proper land management just for our American Icons to live on the land that was designated for them, and take back the land that you gave to the cattlemen that was for the Mustangs. Americans do NOT want Horse Slaugher, and we do want breeders held responsible for overbreeding horses for profit. It has been said over and over and over.
Mar 20, 2013 09:25 AM
I oppose ALL tax payer funded/governmental killing of horses. I do not believe even one rational, fact based reason exists for the reinstatement of horse slaughter venues. The facts, surrounding the entire industry, from concept to 'meat on the table' are astoundingly demonstrative of just how negative the entire process is, not just for horses, but for every person associated with killing them. Our government could actually generate jobs and a profit by looking to intelligent and current holistic management models for our wild horses. Our tax dollars could be re-directed for inspection of the racing industry, over breeding and adequate care by owners. Talk about 'creating jobs' ~ and as far as the poor old ranchers, with too many horses (don't know where to send them)...that's just absurd! Anyone who runs a cattle ranch is a pretty tough individual. They are raising living bodies for sale to slaughter and they 'don't know what to do' when they use up
their ranch horses, and selling their loyal 'workers' to kill buyers/slaughter is all their little brains can conceive? I don't think so.
Emily Guerin
Emily Guerin says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:33 AM
Hi Jennifer,

Just to be clear, the only taxpayer-funded part of the proposed horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico would be the USDA inspector, the same as for any other slaughterhouse.

Emily Guerin
Assistant Online Editor, HCN
Henry Kimbell
Henry Kimbell says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:38 AM
Wild horses need to be managed as a contributing part of the ecosystem not sequestered in holding pens by the lumbering BLM/NFS bureaucracy. That was the intent of the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, a reflection of the broader American public will. Horses and burros are positive contributor's in the wild if allowed to roam freely. However, the BLM/NFS programs are driven by lobbiest money from ranching, hunting and mining interests, and further, the programs have become businesses unto themselves. Of course, if slaughter is reinstated, the next move by the bureaucracies will be a quick and dirty solution: send the sequestered horses to the slaughter plants. This is not what horses deserve, our longstanding partners in many activities, and a high-level mammal with an evolved nervous system. This is a moral issue with a moral imperative. To quote one of the greatest American leaders: “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Emily Guerin
Emily Guerin says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:38 AM
Hi Heidi,

It's not quite as simple as just "leaving the mustangs alone," as you say. There are a whole host of ecological problems that could result from unchecked wild horse and burros populations in the American West. You might find our recent cover story on the BLM's wild horse problem to be of interest. Here's the link:[…]ests-bitter-wild-horse-wars

Thanks for your comment,
Emily Guerin
Assistant Online Editor, HCN
pocahontas  day
pocahontas day says:
Mar 20, 2013 09:44 AM
Emily- Please mention the correct facts- How about the cost to US that goes beyond the USDA funding? Let's call a spade a spade- slaughter is EXPENSIVE to US. It HARMS US! Why not mention that we just had budget cuts to USDA funding of OUR FOOD HERE AT HOME - did you see that most recent fact? So just be "clear" horse slaughter should be BANNED. WE DON'T WANT IT. we will NOT approve our tax dollars to fund this. the cost goes way beyond the USDA funds- it tanks our housing market, ruins the economic viability where any horse slaughter exists, and it POLLUTES our environment - CONTAMINATES- POLLUTES - there is no way around the contamination factor. for anyone to suggest and force then on us is reprehensible and dangerous. please be sure to include these FACTS as this is OUR country and americans continue to say NO - we have always said NO.
pocahontas  day
pocahontas day says:
Mar 20, 2013 10:06 AM
OK- this is becoming very bothersome to read your comments about our Mustangs. IT is the BLM's fault of the situation that they are in- and it is well documented and everyone knows it, so we can debate and I've got the facts to back it up. That being said- The BLM and Ken Salazar KNOWINGLY chose to not use PZP as was directed and they habitually fell short of the guild lines that they should have adhered- what they chose to do instead, was abuse our Mustangs and abuse the American tax payer by hiring contractors such as Sun J to the tune of MILLIONS a year to round-them up. Round-ups we NEVER needed, these horses were supposed to be managed ON the range. But Killer Ken and his cattle buddies wanted that for FREE- I am sick and tired of supporting these ranchers- get THEM off of our land. Cattle are the MOST ecologically destructive to our land- these ranchers are robbing US the AMERICAN tax payer. we are tired of being lied to and i tell ya' what- we are even more tired of supporting these ranchers with OUR hard earned $$ and we are tired of them blaming the horse. the BLM is incompetent and they are liars. the BLM is going to get a revamping and things WILL change for the better for our horses and us the american public. and if they suggest slaughtering our wild horses b.c of a problem THEY CREATED - there will be a major public outrage. NO SLAUGHTER for wild or domestic horses, donkeys- any equines. It harms us, it harms the animals, it harms the land, and it kills our wallet. there are some very well educated and well respected politicians in DC and they will and are fighting for us and the horses. slaughter will lose- get lost.
Arnie Peterson
Arnie Peterson says:
Mar 20, 2013 11:52 AM
What is being debated with horses?
How uniformly do we treat different animals?

There are animals raised to be food for people, animals raised as pets, animals raised as work animals.
There are animals in the wild killed for food, animals in the wild killed for sport.

There are animals people routinely eat. This varies by country, and by religion. Maybe I eat a type of meat that another person’s religion forbids. Should they prevent me from eating it? When can other people decide which animals I eat? Or, when can other people decide how I use animals? Through the years there have been many instances of inhumane treatment of animals. People have gotten upset about this, and generally the result is rules for improved treatment of animals. But aside from avoiding inhumane treatment, what guidelines do we have that say cattle are raised to be hamburgers and leather jackets, but this is not allowed with horses? Elk in the wild are hunted, but this is not allowed with horses. What is the debate with horses? Eating horse meat? Humane killing? The symbolism of wild horses? There are many issues that can be discussed here. But I ask, how do we decide to treat some animals differently than others?
Patricia Siri
Patricia Siri says:
Mar 20, 2013 12:09 PM
The horses will do far less damage to the public lands than the rancers cattle or sheep will do. If the ranchers don't have enough land they should either get out of the business or buy bigger tracts of grazing land. Our public lands are not for them to rent cheaply at the cost of the wild beings of any kind. The taxpayers have to pay for all of it while the ranchers pay minimal grazing fees once the killing of the wild ones stops. Disgusting, all around.
Ladis Niedzwiecki
Ladis Niedzwiecki says:
Mar 20, 2013 01:39 PM
The wild mustangs have been roaming free for decades not a bother to anyone....Nature helps in the cycle of life and death for these horses, sometimes sad....but slaughter should never be a solution to any horses end of life....just as we euthanize our beloved pets in a humane way so they do not suffer, Horse Owners and breeders need to do the same also.....If I could not euthanize my horse I would put a bullet to its head and shoot it DEAD before it ever went to horse should ever be subjected to the utmost cruelest inhumane pain, suffering and fear that they endure..these animals are so fined tuned they sense that threat and fear of whats to come...could you endure slaughter is only for profit ..this is not a 3rd world country we are bountiful NO TO SLAUGHTER ...euthanize your aged and sick hose its the humane thing to do....thank you
Judy Hestehave
Judy Hestehave says:
Mar 20, 2013 08:56 PM
Just another example of a complete waste of our tax dollars. Our elected officials as well as those appointed. How any of them can say with a straight face that they are taking the horses off the land because they are skinny or ruining the land is laughable. Man is #1 at damaging the land with this trucks and quad runners, etc. Sheep are next and then cows, the 100's of thousands of cows eating on my tax paying land, so some rancher can get richer. And it disgusts me more when they shoot a family of wolves because they ate one of his precious cows, for Pete's sake, take care of your own animals. The horses belong on the BLM, the only roundup that should take place is to check the herd and give the mares PZP. And Arnie, what disgusts me is that the horses were illegally taken off the range rather than managed properly, because some sleeze bag Salazar can't see past the green lining his pockets.
carol kyer
carol kyer says:
Mar 21, 2013 10:18 AM
God says a lot about the treatment and mistreatment of His animals ( Psalm 50:10-11} Deuteronomy 14:3-8, Proverbs 12:10 Proverbs 11:17 / Deuteronomy 14:3-8 (KJV)
3 Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing.
4 These are the beasts which ye shall eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat,
5 The hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois.
6 And every beast that parteth the hoof, and cleaveth the cleft into two claws, and cheweth the cud among the beasts, that ye shall eat.
7 Nevertheless these ye shall not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the cloven hoof; as the camel, and the hare, and the coney: for they chew the cud, but divide not the hoof; therefore they are unclean unto you.
8 And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is unclean unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcase.
Jobs are needed, but not animal cruelty, not slaughter houses! Farmers and gardners and fruit trees are needed, not more dead meat!
carol kyer
carol kyer says:
Mar 21, 2013 10:21 AM
the horse chews the cud but does not DIVIDE the HOOF . those who use and thrive on animal cruelty , this is what I say and God says " Ecclesiastes 3:19-20. the cruel animal torturer will have his day in God's Court of Justice!
carol kyer
carol kyer says:
Mar 21, 2013 10:26 AM
To Arnie Peterson Genesis 1:29-30 is the way God meant life to be- this is the normal food chain, not the flesh of dead animals. because man sinned, God made allowances for eating animals but even so He instituted a law of kindness in their slaughter, we are not permitted to eat or drink their blood- for the life of the beast is in their blood! nor animals to be strangled , God expects kindness even to His wonderful creatures the Holy Scriptures are full of such laws.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell says:
Mar 21, 2013 04:59 PM
What???? No bacon????!!!!

"8 And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is unclean unto you: as is it's most devine bacon, ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcase."
Neal Wight
Neal Wight says:
Mar 22, 2013 12:32 PM
Try looking at all this from a practical perspective. Meat is meat is meat. I was looking into buying a burro at the local BLM auction to fill my freezer. At around $100, that is the most affordable deal around. BLM does't give you the paper work until you've kept the animal for a year. BLM makes it impractical (and probably illegal) to eat these animals. I think that is too bad, as I am poor, and burro tastes good.
I am disappointed at how ridiculous this situation has become. 75 million dollars a year? How much was spend on the american bison last year... or any other native animal? I can tell you, as I am a biologist, a pittance. My priorities lye with native wildlife. Go take a hike in a wild horse area, you will find that they are beat. Horses are real hard on the landscape. It is a question of physiology, horses browse different.
I think a life in a crowded pin with thousands and thousands of other horses is inhumane. They damn sure don't belong in the wild areas... So, lets eat them.
Andrew Gorder
Andrew Gorder says:
Mar 22, 2013 04:14 PM
Cheers to Arnie for raising questions that seldom surface in this debate. Why people are so offended and disgusted by the inhumane treatment and slaughter of wild horses and not all other species that faces a similar demise (albeit on a much larger scale) makes no sense on a rational level. Why kill some and not others? Why eat some and not others? If we eat animals, why not, as Neal suggests, eat wild horses? If we choose not to eat some animals, why the arbitrary distinctions? For more on this oft ignored debate, I'd suggest Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals." The book lends a lot of clarity to the larger debate here, but, unfortunately, lacks the straightforward lines ("Roebuck/ Fallow Deer = Good. Pigs/Camels = Bad) drawn in the Bible.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff says:
Mar 26, 2013 12:19 PM
Kill 'em, eat 'em, I'll help.

I'm sick of our tax dollars going to house and feed these "wild" horse in captivity.

I'm sick and tired of the actual wild ones turning out public range land into ecological deserts.
James Liden
James Liden says:
Mar 26, 2013 07:07 PM
Thanks to Neal, Andrew and Adam. It was unfortunate that I had to read through all the emotional leftist posts about the poor horses to get to practical and environmental health focused positions. The focus must be on the health and sustainability of the native wild animals, not feral horses. I support limited 'wild horse' herds on federal land, but scientific managed to remain well within the bounds of sustainable habitat health and native wild species health. These non-native feral horses can not be supported at the expense of native species. If the non-killer crowd don't want the horses to go to slaughter houses, then they need to step up with with the $ and pasture land to support them.
James Liden
James Liden says:
Mar 26, 2013 07:17 PM
It has been a long time since I agreed with the Sierra Club -- "Green organizations have mostly avoided the bloodletting. With the exception of the Sierra Club - which views wild horses as feral animals that should be eliminated from key wildlife habitat - few of them even deal with the issue."
Carl Roberts
Carl Roberts says:
Apr 09, 2013 06:56 PM
Few topics seem to get readers so emotional as this one. Healthy debate is rarely engendered while disparaging those with opinions that collide with your own.Developing an informed opinion often leads to moderation of such zealousness. I would like to address the issues associated with this debate in a logical format. 1. Wild horses are not indegenous to the ranges they currently inhabit. They are feral, having their beginnings from escaped Spanish stock from the earliest to "turn outs" or throw aways in todays herds. 2 The ranges in a large part of the west are under incredible stress from drought and climate change,the capacity to support large grazers is severely diminshed. Cattle too, are in this group and range managers are adjusting their numbers as well.3 Horses are livestock. 4 The waste of approx. 500 pounds of meat per horse should be considered a sin in a world where starvation still exists.5 The burial of horses after euthanasia is problematic on several levels. [Euthanized animals must be buried or cremated to avoid accidental poisoning of other species]. I have laid out these points as points of fact. Always a good way to start a reasonable discussion. If these points cannot be agreed to be fact, then there is no debate there is only emotional pleading and accusations. If everyone with strong opinions would take the time to become educated on the subject , real solutions could be sought out, discovered, and applied to this problem. In an attempt to put the government ban on horse slaughter in perspective for you, I would remind you that this occured, as I recall , under George Bush during the time that France had decided not to lend aid to the war effort in Iraq. All things French were suspect. How can a nation that consumes horse meat be trusted? Bush was at the same time trying to forge some degree of trust with animal rights groups as a way to pull some votes from the left. The problems left from that line of thinking ,both on Iraq and protein preferance, have haunted us since.
     Many historical accounts allude to the Native American fondness for horse meat. The meat even more valued to them was mule. I can't imagine that their belief system would allow them to waste such a valuable food source.Our culture currently can afford to, as we produce plenty of corn and all the wonderful by products that end up in almost everything we eat.
   I assume that some will argue with some of my five fact points.Most will find common ground and a place to start a dialogue from which to work on the problems of humane treatment both during life and at the time of death for these noble creatures. The notion that because you don't want to eat horse has no bearing on what goes on my table.My Jewish friends have never suggested that I not serve pork because they don't eat it.You cannot dictate that others agree with your likes or dislikes. Much of your arguments approach that level if you will sit back and examine your diatribes.
    Over half of my 60 yrs. have been spent in service to, or close partnership with horses. As a full time journeyman farrier I witnessed the best and the worst of the relation between horses and humans. I assure you that there are much worse fates than ending up as a main course. Please rethink some of your positions and seperate your emotions from facts easily accessable.
William V McConnell
William V McConnell says:
Apr 10, 2013 04:08 PM
Carl Roberts comments are among the few rational analyses of the horse problem made on this blog. The comments appealing to emotion or "the scriptures", or blaming management agencies or other resource users who are "more damaging" than wild horses, contribute nothing to the solving of ecological the real and quantifiable problem.