Cattlemen fight horse slaughter ban (US)

Co-sponsor of legislation hears concerns over humane treatment

Scott A. Yates of Capital Press filed this report:

SPOKANE – They love their horses, but cattlemen believe their four-legged partners would be better off if a slaughter option existed to end the lives of old, sick and maybe even starving steeds.

As a result, they oppose a law currently before Congress that would make it illegal to transport horses for slaughter. SB311 has 38 co-sponsors, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Local cattlemen got a chance to talk to Cantwell, through her Eastern Washington director, Marcus Riccelli, at a recent Spokane County Cattlemen’s meeting. Many wondered whether the senator understood the implications of the loss of the slaughter option.

“These animals are going to have to go someplace,” said Gary Grub, who ranches outside Medical Lake, Wash. “I understand people not wanting them to be slaughtered, but would you rather them starve to death?”

Tom Platt, Washington State University Extension educator based in Davenport, said the majority of horses destined for slaughter will live in pain instead.

“That is the unintended consequence,” he said.

With the last three slaughter plants in the U.S. forced to close, horses are now being exported to Mexico and Canada to the tune of about 90,000 head in 2007. While professing their love of horses, the cattlemen said prohibiting export for slaughter will result in more inhumane treatment, not less.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is also concerned about the proposed export prohibition, claiming it will take away one of its members’ last viable management strategies – not to mention the fact the NCBA sees the law as a step down a slippery slope with the elimination of beef processing at the bottom.

Joe Schuele, communications director for the NCBA, said the whole issue of horse slaughter has allowed activists to taint and distort the manner in which animals are slaughtered. He said members of the association have determined repeatedly they do not want horse slaughter banned, because it serves a useful purpose.

“Nobody indiscriminately buys or owns horses with the intent of selling them for slaughter. The money is minimal. It’s a money-losing proposition, but it is, at least, an option,” he said.

Willard Wolf, a cattle broker who works across the Western United States, looked at the question from a business point of view. At the cattlemen’s meeting, he described seeing a blind horse “in misery” at a sale barn. Wolf said being able to process the animal would put value back in the economy, set people to work and provide an export product. Horse meat is eaten in parts of Europe and Asia.

“It’s a total disaster as far as the economy goes, and (it is) inhumane treatment” not to slaughter the animal, he said.

It has also affected the livestock industry in other ways. Stockyards that have traditionally kept their gates unlocked in case a trucker came in late with a load of cattle are chaining their places closed, said Ted Wishon, a cattlemen in Stevens County. The reason? Horses are being dropped off by owners in the middle of the night.

The Humane Society of the United States is supporting the bill to make export of horses for slaughter illegal. Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the society, said the major problem with horse slaughter is the transportation to slaughter. He said horses are packed into trailers where they find it difficult to keep their balance.

“It’s really inhumane and not in the interest of the welfare of horses,” he said, adding that regulations that require better treatment are not enforced. Although the Humane Society website has footage of a horse at a Mexican slaughter plant having the bolt gun administered three times before it was killed, Dane said there is a misconception that slaughter in the U.S. is more humane.

“They are all inhumane. It is a matter of degree. We would prefer no horses are slaughtered,” he said.

Dane said the preference is that horses be killed painlessly with an overdose of barbiturates, the cost of which, including disposal, could cost upwards of $500. Shooting a horse in the head is also legal in some states, and it is an approved Humane Society practice “as long as its administered by somebody who is experienced,” Dane said.

Meanwhile, he said, any increase in horse abandonment comes as a result of a convergence of circumstances, not the closing of slaughter plants in the U.S.

Dane cited drought and the rise in petroleum prices as contributing to higher hay prices, making it harder for lower-income families to feed their horses.

Staff writer Scott Yates is based in Spokane. E-mail:

TAKE ACTION WASHINGTONIANS: If you are a resident of the state of Washington, please contact Senator Cantwell and tell her you are strongly opposed to the slaughter of horses. Thank her for co-sponsoring S 311 and that you are counting on her to vote yes for the passage of this bill.

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