Eating a horse is forbidden territory for Americans. You can tuck into a plate of horseflesh in Tokyo, Paris and Moscow, but it usually won’t be found on the menu in Dallas or Little Rock.
Maybe it’s a recognition of horses as companions, or possibly the view that horses are special, magnificent animals — but Americans don’t eat horses. However, when the Japanese, French, or Russians have come calling for their pound of horseflesh, U.S. slaughterhouses have always been ready to please — or at least used to be. Hides, meat, tails and hooves: There is big money in horses and it’s not all on the track.
Horse slaughter tends to bring a visceral response from most people. At worst, it’s inhumane and repugnant. At best, it’s a turn-a-blind-eye response to what many people would rather not know about.
But a question remains, regardless of one’s primal response to assembly line killing of horses: Is it necessary?
Horse slaughter ended in the U.S. in 2007. Essentially a backdoor ban, Congress cut off funding for USDA inspections of equine slaughterhouses. With no inspection, the meat couldn’t be sold, and the industry went out with a whimper. Animal rights groups were delighted until the law of unintended consequences came to collect: The number of U.S. horses exported for slaughter tripled, with 138,000 sent over the border in 2010. The shuttering of U.S. horse slaughterhouses has turned into a “Be careful what you wish for,” lesson.
U.S. horse exports are trucked to Canada or Mexico, a nightmare for animal rights activists. In America, the slaughter was monitored and the killing done with a 4-inch bolt pistol to the brain. Even the best and most reasonable arguments against the use of a bolt pistol quickly blanch when compared with gruesome accounts reported from numerous Mexican abattoirs.
Currently there are 9 million horses in the U.S., and abuse/neglect cases have become commonplace. There are over 150,000 unwanted horses in America and plenty of sources report a far higher number. The owners would not and will not pay for euthanasia or carcass disposal. Horses live about 30 years and cost at least several thousand dollars each year to feed and shelter (not even factoring in vet bills). The grim reality: Equine slaughterhouses may be the best option; at least when stacked beside the other wretched choices.
The backlash over 150,000 unwanted horses in America was a catalyst for Congress to restore USDA inspections in 2011 — but legal battles will continue, and as 2012 closes, no U.S. horse slaughterhouses are in operation.
Compounding the controversy, the U.S. horse racing industry has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the fray. Racehorses account for a small percent of the horse meat trade, and according to a New York Times report, European food safety officials have serious questions about tainted fare: “The meat of American racehorses may be too toxic to eat safely because the horses have been injected repeatedly with drugs.” The EU fears might bring on a requirement of lifetime medical records for all horses, “and perhaps require them to be held on feedlots or some other holding area for six months before they are slaughtered.”
This is not a case of the European over-regulation: A Times investigation showed that over the last three years, 3,600 U.S. horses have died during racing or training. “Since 2009, records show, trainers at United States tracks have been caught illegally drugging horses 3,800 times, a figure that vastly understates the problem because only a small percentage of horses are actually tested.”
If the European stance leads to a no-kill policy of racetrack horses, that may add thousands more to America’s growing list of unwanted horses. It’s very easy to oppose U.S. horse slaughterhouses and feel secure on moral high ground. But that moral high ground begins to creak when the number of unwanted horses reaches a crisis level, and it collapses when Canadians or Mexicans are pulling the trigger all the same.
Is it time to open U.S. horse slaughterhouses again? It’s a grim choice, but it may be the best one when matched with abuse, abandonment, and unregulated abattoirs.
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