Imagine a proposal to scatter millions of pounds of poisoned meat around the United States, close to human populations. Much of it would be accessible to scavengers — including eagles, hawks, coyotes, foxes and badgers, as well as dogs and cats. Any animal feeding on the poisoned meat would probably die.
This scenario is likely, now that the opponents of slaughtering horses are having their way. For many years, unwanted horses have routinely been sent to slaughter. Some horsemeat becomes pet food, but much is exported to Europe for human consumption. Horse-slaughter opponents tend to think of horses as beloved pets, much like cats or dogs, and in America, the last thing we would do is eat a pet. In Europe, however, horsemeat is a staple, and it’s found on many menus.
The opponents of horse-slaughter have concentrated their efforts on stopping the export of horsemeat for human consumption. Since “filet of filly” is a dish that repels Americans, their campaign has generated some sympathy. Exporting American horses to feed foreign palates has also been labeled unpatriotic, with critics calling the practice contrary to American values.
Now, a poison-meat scenario has become the alternative to government-regulated slaughter of unwanted horses. On March 29, the last U.S. horse-slaughter plant was closed, by order of a federal judge in the District of Columbia who found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hadn’t followed proper procedures in setting up a fee-supported system for inspecting facilities that slaughter horses for human consumption. (Congress had earlier cut off government funding for such inspections.) The DeKalb, Ill., plant was the last still operating in the U.S.; two Texas plants were forced to stop operating by state laws against possessing, selling or transporting horsemeat for human consumption. Last year, the three plants slaughtered about 100,800 horses.
What do slaughter opponents advocate? Their Political Action Committee, aptly called HOOFPAC, says it all in a slogan: “Keep America’s horses in the stable and off the table.” This is a catchy phrase, but it doesn’t address whose stable, and at whose expense. Adoptive homes are not available for all unwanted horses today, and the current horse population is an estimated 9.2 million — more horses living now than in 1900, before the automobile began replacing the animals as transportation.
In the flesh-and-blood world of horse ownership, horses, whether beast of burden or beloved pet, must sometimes be put to death. The animal may be old and infirm, injured or dangerous to people. Slaughter opponents call for “humane euthanasia” by a veterinarian, at a cost of $100 to $300, which is a lot to pay for a horse that might bring as little as $300 to $500 at auction. And supporting an unwanted horse for a year can cost as much as $3,000.
Once a horse is euthanized, what then? The owner is left to dispose of a 1,200-pound carcass that has been saturated with a toxic substance. Most states require burial of euthanized animals at least two feet deep, away from water. Slaughter opponents advocate rendering — that is, boiling the animal and extracting what’s useful — but rendering is unavailable in most parts of the country and unsuitable for poisonous remains. A common solution is to pay the veterinarian to haul the carcass to the public landfill.
An Internet search for “horse disposal” brings advice on cremation — expensive where available — and grief counseling. No one addresses the reality or additional expense of disposing of a large contaminated carcass.
Existing federal animal-slaughter regulations require humane methods, so horses don’t suffer. Opponents condemn the process as cruel, but the horse is killed with a handheld machine that fires a bolt into the brain, causing instant death. Inspectors are on-site, and the plants have been designed to minimize stress on the horses.
No one likes to think about the details of death, but like it or not, all animals die. We live in a world of limited resources. American horses, prized for their size and health, convert sunshine, grass and grain into flesh and bone. When it is time for those horses to die, it makes sense that they go on to feed people and pets. Poisoning horses and then dumping them in a landfill makes no sense at all.
Sharon O’Toole is a rancher and writer in Savery, Wyoming.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.