Slaughtering the facts about horse slaughter

By John Holland
Shawsville, Va.

Times-Gazette readers should know that they are reading a very special publication. Following an article by guest columnist Bill Horne titled Law causes additional problems, The Times-Gazette became aware that the premise of the article was incorrect and that a proposed federal law against horse slaughter (which Horne blamed for assorted woes) has never been passed.

What makes The Times-Gazette unusual is that the newspaper actually published a retraction and set the record straight. As a writer and horse lover, I belong to a small group that monitors stories on horse slaughter and tries to get such stories corrected. Doing this is like nailing Jell-o to a tree. Occasionally, we get equal space for a response, but this is one of only two retractions I have seen in six years.

The slaughter issue was complicated enough before the larger agriculture industry concluded that a ban on horse slaughter would be merely the first step on the slippery slope to vegan domination. As a result, lobbyists and PR agencies have been working overtime to spin the reality and to convince Americans that they need to give up their instinctive feeling that horse slaughter is wrong. To do this, they try to convince us that an end to slaughter would be bad for the horses themselves.

In February of 2007, after a prolonged legal battle, the courts upheld a Texas law against the selling of horse meat for human consumption. The two Texas plants were forced to close. Almost immediately, an AP article was carried in dozens of papers worldwide claiming that horses grazing on a reclaimed strip mine in Eastern Kentucky had been abandoned there because of the reduction in slaughter over recent years. It claimed Kentucky was “awash” in unwanted horses.

The Kentucky story, like Mr. Horne’s, was based on a false premise. The horses were not abandoned. Ironically, the horses at the strip mine had been the subject of yet another Associated Press story only a month earlier when teenagers had shot several of them. Yet, when presented with their own story identifying the ownership of the horses, the AP stonewalled and refused to even acknowledge the criticism. To this day, and despite denials from the state police to the governor, articles still appear referring to the plight of the abandoned horses in Kentucky.

In September the last plant, Cavel, was closed by a new Illinois law against slaughtering horses for human consumption. This event set off a torrent of stories about all the problems being caused by a lack of slaughter.

An AP story from the Oregonian claimed that abandoned horses were a “growing dilemma” for ranchers. It told of a Mr. McKenzie who had nine horses dumped on his farm, and it quoted an under-sheriff Wolfe about how hard it was to determine who dumped such horses.

But Wolfe’s incident report showed that only one horse had been reported (by McKenzie’s granddaughter) and even that was determined to be unfounded. County records for a three-year period showed no such abandonment cases. Did the Oregonian print a retraction? Nope! Faced with the document showing their story to be false, they said they were “standing behind their reporter.”

The complete inaccuracy of these stories made no difference to Senator Larry Craig either. He announced on the Senate floor that these reports were the reason he was blocking the AHSPA (American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act). It was only then that the full strategy of the disinformation campaign became apparent.

Since that time there have been countless stories butchering the facts at almost the same rate as the horses dying in abattoirs abroad. Some stories claim that the price of horses has dropped to almost nothing because of the plant closings. Still other stories insist horses are being neglected and starved for the same reason. And while there are areas in which these problems have increased, it has nothing to do with the plant closings. Yes, some breeders are struggling economically but that is not because they can’t sell their culls for slaughter, it is because of the high price of hay and corn, staples of the equine diet. Ethanol anyone?

Yes, the U.S.-based slaughterhouses have been closed, but American horses are being exported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter in numbers almost identical to those before the plant closings. Within a week of its closing, Cavel’s Belgian parent company, Velda LLC, was contracting with the much larger Natural Valley Farms plant in Woosley, SK Canada to kill its horses. As a result, Canadian slaughter almost doubled in one month and American horses were soon being butchered at the same rate as before the closings according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records.

The confusion caused by this disinformation is made worse because horse slaughter is an emotionally charged issue with a complicated history. For example, there was a budget amendment passed by Congress to shut down the horse slaughter plants by removing the funding for required inspections. This should have shuttered the U.S. plants in March 2006, but the USDA instituted a pay-for-inspections program that kept the plants going until the state laws finally ran them to ground. This might have been the seed of Mr. Horne’s factually challenged article.

How much of the present misunderstanding of the horse slaughter issue is due to intentional disinformation and how much is just confusion caused by that disinformation is impossible to know. But if we are to make informed decisions on this and other important issues, we must have solid information. If other publications would follow The Times-Gazette’s lead and return to responsible journalism, we might have a chance.

John Holland is a freelance writer and the author of three books. He writes frequently on the subject of horse slaughter from his small farm in the mountains of Virginia where he lives with his wife, Sheilah, and their 12 equines.

Source (article): ClickLink; (photograph): Craig Lundgren

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