For horse people, there are few topics more controversial than slaughter.
When a government report  was released June 22, it didn’t tell anyone seriously involved on either side of the debate anything they didn’t already know. But the report did frame the situation perfectly by recommending either closing the channel of slaughter from the United States or re-opening domestic slaughterhouses.
Depending on which side of the debate you’re on, one of those recommendations likely expresses your best-case scenario. People on both sides of the pro/anti-slaughter debate tend to agree that since all three slaughter plants in the United States closed in 2007, the situation has gotten worse for the horses—they make longer trailer trips with less government regulation. But having agreed on that, the next step is the subject of great discussion.
“I was a proponent of getting rid of the slaughter-houses in their previous format,” said Allie Conrad , director of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of The Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses. “It wasn’t being done humanely—putting the horses in a room where they’re seeing other horses killed is horrifying for them, and not to mention the transport. But the unintended consequences have been worse. It hasn’t slowed the number of horses down at all. They’re going farther, and [the people sending them] are sneakier.”
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (R) introduced a bill called the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011 on June 9. It would officially ban slaughter in this country while also outlawing export of horses for slaughter. U.S. Reps. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives on September 19.
“As a lifelong horse lover and rider, this practice is appalling to me, and more importantly, the majority of Americans oppose it,” said Landrieu in a statement released by her office. “We raise and train horses to trust us, perform for us, and allow us on their backs, and as such, they deserve to be treated with human compassion. When horse owners are faced with the sad reality of having to put their animals down, it should be by humane euthanasia. I intend to…get this bill passed and permanently end the slaughter of our American horses.”
Some version of the bill has been introduced for the last several years. However, another bill, introduced by Montana Senator Max Baucus, attempts to re-instate funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections at U.S. horse slaughter plants.  “It’s still contentious,” said Ben Pendergrass, legislative director at the American Horse Council, an organization that has remained neutral on the topic. “There’s a polar split 50/50 down the middle in the horse world and in Congress. People are really concerned with welfare, and that’s what we’re concerned with. It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of folks.”
A Brief History
At the height of horse slaughtering in this country, when the meat was still used in dog food, there were 35 rendering plants. The number started decreasing after the 1966 Fair Packaging and Labeling Act showed consumers the amount of horsemeat their pets were eating; there were 16 plants open in the 1980s and seven in 1994.
As late as 2006, two foreign-owned slaughterhouses remained open in Texas and one in Illinois, with all the meat being exported to Europe and Asia.
In 2006, a provision in a U.S. Department of Agriculture bill prohibited federal funds from going to inspect the horse slaughter plants. Though the facilities stayed open into 2007 by paying for the inspections under a voluntary fee-for-service program started by USDA in February of 2006, respective state laws in Texas and Illinois formally stopped slaughter in 2007. While there’s no explicit ban on slaughter, the current lack of funding also doesn’t allow more plants to open.
“The [lack of USDA funds for inspections] effectively prohibits slaughter in the U.S.,” said Pendergrass. “It was kind of an interesting thing. The funding prohibition had gone in before the plants were shut down, but they were able to pay for inspections themselves. The Texas law was an old law that had been on the books since about 1949—[a lawsuit] brought up that it was on the books, and Texas had to enforce it. Illinois passed a law in 2007 prohibiting horse slaughter specifically.”
When the last U.S. slaughterhouse, Belgian-owned Cavel International, Inc. in DeKalb, Ill., closed in September of 2007, it was the end of slaughter within these borders. Before the last of the plants closed, slaughter proponents (including the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Association and the American Veterinary Medicine Association) expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of eliminating an inexpensive option for horse owners to dispose of their unwanted horses.
But the pipelines to Mexico and Canada—where the USDA estimates 32,789 horses were sent for slaughter in 2006—just grew busier. In 2009, 109,487 horses were exported to Canada and Mexico marked for slaughter, and in 2010, 137,984 made one-way trips across the border. The 2010 number of horses exported for slaughter (137,984) is nearly equal to the combined amount slaughtered in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2006 (137,688), the last full year the domestic plants were open.
While no horses are currently slaughtered in the United States, there are still rendering plants where pet food and other products like glue are made from their corpses. The horses are hauled to the rendering plants after they’re already dead, so the Federal Meat Inspection Act and subsequent ban on funds for inspections don’t cover the industry. There are also three plants where horsemeat is imported for repackaging and distribution and then sold to zoos and circuses to feed the animals.
“There hasn’t been a decrease in horses being exported for slaughter,” said Dr. Tom Lenz, past president of the AAEP and former chair of the Unwanted Horse Coalition. “It continues to be an issue. It’s driven by a lot of reasons, and the economy is the biggest.”
This is the first article in a four-part series, which will run every Wednesday through Oct. 26. The original version of this article was published in the July 18 & 25, 2011, Horse Care Issue. If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing . Check out the table of contents  to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.