By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, July 6, 2008
MESQUITE – The traders at Dallas County’s half-filled horse auction knew the fate of their scrawny thoroughbreds even before they herded them into the ring.
Horses in Mexican abattoirs are stabbed repeatedly until their spines are severed so they can be hoisted and their throats slit for bleeding out and butchering.
At least half of the horses for auction at the Dallas County Horse Sales last month were likely to end up in Mexico, where money can still be made off horse slaughter. About 25,000 horses have been shipped to Mexico for slaughter this year.
And it wasn’t to go back to the ranch.
The ones with visible backbones and skin stretched over their ribs – at least half of the 36 horses for sale – would probably end up in Mexico, where money can still be made off horse slaughter.
Texas horse traders say it’s the best solution to the combined wallop of forced American slaughterhouse closures last year and one of the worst horse markets in history.
“We don’t have anywhere to move them, and they’re starving to death,” said Steven Oden, a horse trader from Terrell whose prize horses once sold for $8,000 but now go for $800.
Breeders, ranchers and cowboys are struggling to continue a livelihood that extends generations. The closure of the kill plants coupled with the rising price of hay and fuel means rising numbers of horses with dwindling funds to care for them. Horse owners say they’re left with little option but to sell their horses to a “killer buyer,” or trader who buys the horses at a reduced price and takes them to Mexico for slaughter.
“It’s a creed among Texan traders: We know we have to do it; we just don’t say,” Mr. Oden said.
About 25,000 horses have been shipped to Mexico for slaughter this year, 10,000 more than this time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number of horses sent from Texas has doubled during the same period and makes up the majority of the shipments.
“Killer buyers” purchase weak horses cheaply and transport them across the border, a process that has become more clandestine but also more popular since Congress banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption in 2007.
The number of horses crossing the border has grown six times since then.
Before the ban, up to 100,000 horses were slaughtered annually. Much of the meat went overseas to countries like France and Japan where horse appears on menus as a delicacy.
The bill forced two Texas factories – in Fort Worth and Kaufman – to close and left horse activists worried about a glut in abandoned horses. Some states, such as Colorado and Kentucky, have seen more stray horses in national parks and on private ranches.
But that didn’t happen in Texas, where shipments to Mexico are easy.
“Unlike the stories elsewhere, we’re actually not seeing wandering horses all over the place,” said Jerry Finch, president of Habitat for Horses, the largest equine rescue organization in the region. He said the number of abused or abandoned horses in the state is down slightly this year, although the Houston-based operation averages 380 rescues a year.
But Texas could see more stray horses if Congress passes a proposed bill to ban the sale of unwanted horses to Mexico and Canada. No date has been set for a vote.
Still, advocates haven’t stopped their fight to extend the ban. That includes Texas oilman and rancher T. Boone Pickens and his wife, Madeleine, who lassoed enough support to propel the first ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption.
“We’ll try to figure out how to get this stopped,” the Dallas billionaire said about the shipments to Mexico. Economic difficulties are no excuse, he said.
“It’s a killing job, and that’s not much of a deal as far as I’m concerned.”
Barbara Linke of the American Quarter Horse Association, which advocates humane slaughter over starvation, said she fears an extended ban could bring about more neglect.
“I think we are going to see a lot more cases of animal cruelty and a lot more horses abandoned if the bill passes,” Ms. Linke said.
‘Nothing will change’
Tom Lenz, a veterinarian and chairman of the Unwanted Horse Coalition, said buyers will find a way to get horses across the border even with tougher laws.
“Killer buyers will simply ship them as riding horses and then resell them for slaughter across the border,” he said. “Nothing will change.”
Instead, the horse industry should avoid an overabundance by learning to breed more selectively, he said. Last year, the Unwanted Horse Coalition reported 170,000 abandoned horses throughout the country.
“We need to deal more with the front end, decreasing horse production,” Dr. Lenz said. Few horse owners choose euthanasia because of the expense, he said. It can cost at least $100 for a shot, and that doesn’t include disposal fees.
Mr. Finch said putting horses to sleep is still more humane than slaughter, an argument shared by many animal rights activists.
“We don’t slaughter and eat our dogs,” he said. “A lot of people think horses are just livestock. They aren’t.”
But that doesn’t help people like Ed Vance, who survives on horse sales. The owner of Dallas County Horse Sales in Mesquite said his sales are running just about half what they were a year ago, dropping to an average of $300 a horse.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said, looking at a sickly mare waiting for auction. The price of feed has doubled, and rising transportation costs are keeping some sellers away.
It’s a simple case of supply and demand, he said. Right now, the main buyers are from Mexico.
But Mr. Vance says he has made the least amount in annual commission since the slaughterhouses closed.
“Now I’ve got a lot of poor horses with no market for them here,” he said.