Way Back: Horses, the captive bolt and Humane Slaughter Act

Paper published in 2005 at the Fund for Horses original site, fund4horses.org


Manes and Tails Organization

The captive bolt administered by slaughter worker to a horse to render her senseless and drop her through the kill chute onto the kill floor, so she can be hoisted by a back leg, her throat slit and bled out. Photo: HFA.
The captive bolt is administered by a slaughter worker to a horse to render her senseless and drop her through the kill chute onto the kill floor, so she can be hoisted with a chain by a back leg, her throat slit and bled out. Photo: HFA.

I. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958

The Humane Slaughter Act (“HAS”), was first enacted in 1958, and amended in 1978 and 2002. HSA requires slaughterhouses to render livestock unconscious before they are killed.

On May 13, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002” (Public Law 107-171), which includes a Resolution that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 should be fully enforced to prevent the needless suffering of animals. It also calls upon the Secretary of Agriculture to track violations “and report the results and relevant trends annually to Congress.”

In January 2004 the General Accounting Office investigated violations of the ‘Humane Methods of Slaughter Act’ which amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act and extended the policy nationwide by requiring that all federally inspected slaughter establishments adopt humane handling and slaughter methods. The results of the GAO investigation can be found at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04247.pdf.


7 U.S.C.A. § 1901 Findings and Declaration of Policy

The Congress finds that the use of humane methods in the slaughter of livestock prevents needless suffering; results in safer and better working conditions for persons engaged in the slaughtering industry; brings about improvement of products and economies in slaughtering operations; and produces other benefits for producers, processors, and consumers which tend to expedite an orderly flow of livestock and livestock products in interstate and foreign commerce.

It is therefore declared to be the policy of the United States that the slaughtering of livestock and the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter shall be carried out only by humane methods.

7 U.S.C.A. § 1902 Humane Methods

No method of slaughtering or handling in connection with slaughtering shall be deemed to comply with the public policy of the United States unless it is humane. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling is hereby found to be humane:

(a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or

(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

II. Captive Bolt/Exsanguination: Method of Achieving Insensibility Used in the United States

The penetrating captive bolt followed by immediate exsanguination (bleeding out) has been the preferred method of achieving insensibility of equines in American slaughterhouses since the early 1980’s. The mode of action of a penetrating captive bolt gun is concussion and trauma to the brain. This requires that it be held firmly against the surface of the head over the intended site. Because placement and positioning of the projectile is critical, some degree of restraint is required for proper use of this device.

While the destruction of brain tissue with the penetrating captive bolt may be sufficient to result in death, operators are strongly advised to ensure death by exsanguination.

(Source: http://lacs.vetmed.ufl.edu/HumaneEuthanasia/Ex.htm)

It is important to note that in the foreign owned equine slaughterhouses operating in the United States, no form of restraint is used when the equine is in the kill chute or ‘knock box’ waiting for the penetrating captive bolt to be applied. In some instances, it takes several attempts to effectively apply the penetrating captive bolt the equine, if this is achieved at all.

The use of the penetrating captive bolt is in violation of 7 U.S.C.A. § 1902 (a) of the Humane Slaughter Act as this methodology requires more than one blow and is inefficient at rendering equines immediately insensible.

(Sources: (i) Dr. Lester Friedlander, DVM and former Chief USDA Inspector, and
(ii) Humane Farming Association video documentation at http://www.manesandtailsorganization.org/media.html)

(1) Use of the captive bolt causes extreme pain.

In a study conducted at Hanover University, EEG and ECG recordings were taken on all animals to measure the condition of the brain and heart during the course of slaughter and stunning. EEG readings showed that although the animals were apparently unconscious soon after stunning with the penetrating captive bolt, they were in severe pain immediately after stunning.

(Source: http://www.themodernreligion.com/misc/an/an_slaughter.htm)

(2) Horses regain consciousness approximately 30 seconds after the captive bolt is applied.

Due to the inherent differences in skull structures of bovines and equines, each species reacts to the captive bolt differently. The brain of an equine is further back in the skull compared to a bovine. The equines regain consciousness and are not insensible to pain shortly after they are shackled and hoisted. Therefore, they are very much aware of being butchered alive.

(Source: Dr. Lester Friedlander, DVM and former Chief USDA Inspector.)

III. No Other Methods of Equine Slaughter Comply with the HSA of 1958

(1) Electrocution – has been defined as ‘cruel’ by the American Horse Show Association in response to owners who have electrocuted their horses for insurance money. Federal Courts have upheld the Association’s contention that electrocution is cruel. Therefore, it cannot be used as a method of humane slaughter for equines.

(2) Drug Overdose – this method saturates the tissues and leaves residues thereby making the meat inedible.

(3) Carbon Monoxide – this method saturates the tissues and leaves residues thereby making the meat inedible.

(4) .22 Caliber Gun Shot – This particular firearm is inappropriate for equines due to the thickness of the skull structure of an equine. Using the .22 caliber rifle does not achieve instantaneous insensibility of equines. Larger caliber firearms such as a 9mm or .357 are required to efficiently penetrate the skull and cause the massive brain destruction necessary to achieve instantaneous insensibility.

(Source: Procedures for Humane Euthanasia of Sick, Injured and/or Debilitated Livestock http://lacs.vetmed.ufl.edu/HumaneEuthanasia/gun.htm).

Additionally, the horse cannot be restrained and this method is dangerous to workers.

IV. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners Positions Regarding Equine Slaughter

Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners deem the use of the penetrating captive bolt ‘acceptable.’ The American Veterinary Medical Association 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia evaluated Euthanasia according to this criterion:

(1) ability to induce loss of consciousness and death without causing pain, distress, anxiety, or apprehension;
(2) time required to induce loss of consciousness;
(3) reliability;
(4) safety of personnel;
(5) irreversibility;
(6) compatibility with requirement and purpose;
(7) emotional effect on observers or operators;
(8) compatibility with subsequent evaluation, examination, or use of tissue;
(9) drug availability and human abuse potential;
(10) compatibility with species, age, and health status;
(11) ability to maintain equipment in proper working order; and
(12) safety for predators/scavengers should the carcass be consumed.

The use of the penetrating captive bolt gun does not meet the AVMA Panel’s criteria regarding “loss of consciousness and death without causing pain, distress, anxiety, or apprehension.”

Unlike bovines (which the penetrating captive bolt was designed for) equines possess different skull structures, are flight animals, and attempt to flee the ‘knock box’ or ‘kill chute.’ That being the case, it takes numerous attempts before the animal is properly stunned, if this is achieved at all.

From documentation provided by the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Farming Association it is clear that these equines are feeling pain due to the number of attempts taken to stun them, and are extremely distressed, anxious, and apprehensive.

This invalidates criteria 1, 2, 3, 6, and 10 of the AVMA’s criterion for ‘humane euthanasia.’

The AVMA position regarding the use of the penetrating captive bolt is in violation of 7.

U.S.C.A. § 1902 (a) of the Humane Slaughter Act as this methodology requires more than one blow and is inefficient at rendering equines insensible.


The use of the penetrating captive bolt is in violation of the Humane Slaughter Act generally, and 7 U.S.C.A. § 1902 (a) specifically. Any other method of slaughter as applied to equines is in violation of the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 generally, and 7 U.S.C.A. § 1902 (a) specifically.

© 2005 Ellen-Cathryn Nash for Manes and Tails Organization
and Vivian Farrell for Int’l Fund for Horses (HorseFund.org)

14 thoughts on “Way Back: Horses, the captive bolt and Humane Slaughter Act”

  1. the answer is people are gluttons. as long as they eat horses there will be slaughter, . People are savages to dine on the bodies of any being that has a cerebral cortex


  2. How can I get some of these articles to face book to my own site chris fairbanks and also others


    1. You can do a little introduction or comment then copy and paste in the link to it. All posts have an image, and that will automatically post too. Is that what you meant?


  3. Right now all of these politicians, especially the Senate, are neck deep trying to pass a amnesty bill for the millions of illegal aliens that they and their predecessors, including all of the past presidents have allowed to invade the country. This was all done to make sure the farmers and big AG had all of the low paid workers they needed. They are to busy to even waste a thought on these horses. You can thank the US Senate for never passing a anti-horse-slaughter bill.


  4. There is No humane way to slaughter a Horse !!!!!!!!! And also there is no need to do so !!!!!!!! Horses are a gift a wonderful Gift of life and love !!!!!! Their importance to be here Wild and FREE is a must for all survival of this there is NO doubt !!!!!!


  5. Vivian,

    Thanks for re-publishing E Nash’s paper. Her powerful voice on behalf of horses has never waivered.

    Friends, please share this post far and wide! And be sure to share with your veterinarian, who may assume the AVMA was honest in their evaluation of the captive bolt.



    1. I second your comment, Faith, Elle is a hero of mine, a real angel.
      Further, as long as AVMA and AAEP fail to stand for humane treatment of horses, and fail to condemn horse slaughter (and the captive bolt gun), their motives and standing remain suspect. Both associations need to stop looking for the unjustified profits via the “garbage can” that is commercial horse slaughter, and instead pursue humane treatment and real-world solutions that could make horse slaughter obsolete in the US. It’s all about the money, and that’s indefensible when such extreme suffering is the result.


  6. Policitians and a straight answer? It will never happen. This is a highly conotroversial subject and many of these politicians depend on contributions from big ag. So, let’s just remember this when it’s election time. Get them out of office and let’s get people in there who is are advocates for all animals..


  7. I WISH this horse slaughter would be broadcasted on NEWS station’s, we never here anything about it, NOTHING, imagine that right?? I hate feeling so helpless, even though we all are doing what we can to stop this, it is NOT being HEARD….. ALL the American Public needs to hear, THEN maybe we could stop this corruption…. ALL these years, unbelievable, I wrote to Rand Paul one of my Senators about this and kept getting a retoracle answer back, so I finally got so pissed I said PLEASE answer one question are you Pro Slaughter or Anti simple question I said I have a right to know as a tax payer and your constituent, think I’ve heard back from him, HA, NO WAY so that’s my answer isn’t it………………….. SO ANGRY…………………..


      1. There are untold numbers of violations of the Humane Slaughter Act (among others) reported every year.

        When we raised this issue, we were told by a USDA employee that they rarely ever collect what are now millions of dollars worth of related fines. Yet the federal gov’t says it is always looking for ways to help the budget. How about collecting fines like these, some that go back decades? He then told me they did not have the staff. Well create some jobs. Bring in some contract workers. I am sure this is just too stupidly easy to be workable so there must be something wrong with that suggestion … right?


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