People care deeply about their horses. The United States Congress cares about horses. There is emotional attachment to horses, but it should not blind well intentioned individuals as to why Congress decided it had made a mistake and took action to address the unintended consequences from cessation of slaughter of domestic horses.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in June, 2011, entitled appropriately "Horse Welfare." It is GAO-11-228 should you want to read the facts about the lack of domestic slaughter facilities for horses in the U.S.
The igniting spark in the horse slaughter debate is a new law suit filed by Valley Meat Company in New Mexico. Valley Meat claims USDA is not providing appropriate inspections and inspectors which would allow Valley Meat to initiate horse slaughter in the U.S. which has been shut down since 2007.
Just the facts
To determine whether horse slaughter should be reinitiated in the United States, GAO staff examined the effect of the horse slaughter ban since it was enacted in 2007. GAO looked for market changes on horse welfare and on states, local governments, tribes, and animal welfare organizations. It also selected five academic experts who had published studies on the horse industry and talked to state veterinarians in 17 states.
In the fall of 2007, the last three horse slaughtering facilities in the US were closed. In the last full year of operations, two of the facilities slaughtered approximately 105,000 horses. In 1990, the number of horses slaughtered was 345,900 and that number decreased through 2002 to 42,312. Sixteen facilities operated in the 1980s and that number collapsed to two facilities in 2002.
Before the horse slaughter ban in 2007, horse meat was tested for consumption by humans or zoo animals. Horses still are used for pet food and glue because corpses of horses are now taken to rendering plants for disposal and product creation. These products are not covered by the Federal Meat Inspection Act.
Due to the ban, GAO states "…U.S. exports of horses intended for slaughter increased to Canada and Mexico,…" In 2012, Canada had four horse slaughter facilities and Mexico three. It was determined that the number of horses going to slaughter in Canada has increased by 148% and to Mexico 660%. In addition, an interesting side business has developed where horses are sent to feed lots first for fattening before they are sent to slaughter facilities.
Since 2007, state veterinarians say fewer horse sales are occurring and owners have fewer options in getting rid of their horses. The economic downturn in the U.S. has "likely affected horse prices" because so many U.S. horses are used for recreational use and are thought to be a luxury item. One GAO study estimated that approximately 45% of horse owners have an annual household income of between $25,000-75,000 per year.
GAO states "Horse welfare in the United States has declined in 2007, as evidenced by reported increase in horse abandonments and an increase in investigations for horse abuse and neglect." GAO is careful to state that there is a lack of comprehensive national data on this assertion but 17 state veterinarians report such abandonments and abuse. The state veterinarians also report that horse welfare has generally declined and they cite the cessation of domestic slaughter in 2007 and the economic downturn as causing more abuse and neglect.
The veterinarians also point out that very few owners directly harm their horses but simply neglect feeding and providing the appropriate vaccinations for their horses.
Tribal nations are also reporting "…increases of abandonments on their land, exacerbating the overpopulation on tribal lands." GAO representatives said there is significant degradation of tribal lands due to overgrazing caused by large populations of horses which have been abandoned onto the tribal land. GAO also declares "…domesticated horses abandoned on public lands generally have poor survival prospects,…" They claim domestic horses, when turned loose on tribal lands, are unfamiliar with the wild plants which are edible and domestic horses are likely to be shunned or hurt by wild horses.
Congress has now taken action to address the unintended consequences from the cessation of domestic horse slaughter. States such as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming are attempting to deal with unwanted, abused, neglected horses.
The slaughter of horses as evidenced by comments on my column is a controversial issue. It is also a fact that the number of US horses going to slaughter has not decreased and the unintended consequences for these horses destined for slaughter is that they are traveling much farther to meet the same end in foreign slaughtering facilities. Congress has now acted to better protect the welfare of horses transported to slaughter. This is common horse sense!