Saturday, March 22, 2008

They shoot them, don't they?...

My commentary this week on USFR (to be posted Monday) will doubtless provoke spirited reaction from those opposed to horse slaughter, as I think reconsidering the issue will become almost impossible to avoid. Not being a "horse person" in any sense of the word, I have learned to appreciate the immense size and economic power of the equine industry, however, and my conversations with horse owners here in my community found all in agreement that a problem is escalating.

There is a quiet battle raging in the horse industry over the 1-2 punch of skyrocketing feed costs and the close of horse slaughter plants. Some results at mathematically obvious.
Local sale barn operators say a 2007 ruling that closed a DeKalb, Ill., horse-processing plant -- the last in the United States -- along with high feed prices and high fuel costs has severely depressed a market already saturated with horses that were bred during better economic times. They say current legislation pending in Congress that would ban sending horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico would leave the region's horse owners without viable options to get rid of unwanted animals.

Greg Johnson, owner of I-90 Expo Center horse sale in Sherburn, Minn., said some owners see the writing on the wall and are trying to get rid of their horses.

"The bulk of the horses are suffering," he said. "A lot of people that have had horses for years just want to get rid of them now."

Cleone Uecker, who runs South Dakota Horse Sales in Corsica, said the horse market peaked five years ago. It seemed everyone was buying stallions and broodmares, she said, even if that meant taking out loans or switching from raising cattle to horses.

Before the ban on slaughtering, she said, a 1,000-pound horse that couldn't sell as a trained saddle horse would bring about $600. [More]

Some problems are more vague - such as rumors of abandoned horses in public parks and range land. And claims of horse being abandoned at higher rates than before are strongly disputed especially in Kentucky.
Despite the dramatic stories, it's hard to pinpoint just how deep the problem goes.

Dr. Robert Stout, Kentucky's state veterinarian, says no statewide figures are available on how many horses have been abandoned or neglected or how many, if any, have died.

However, Stout says he's convinced there is a problem.

"My perspective is that it's probably due to the drought we had and the shortage of hay and other foodstuffs, coupled with higher prices," he said. "It's probably more of an issue than it has been in previous years."

Lori Neagle says the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, by far the largest rescue organization in the area, has taken in more than 140 horses since opening about a year ago. Many, though not all, of the cases were related to high hay prices. Other rescue groups report receiving much smaller numbers. But since there is no comprehensive list of centers statewide, it's unclear how many horses have been rescued.

Ginny Grulke, the horse council director, says that while she's received "lots of reports of abandoned horses from people who are credible," her group has been unable to compile "quantifiable numbers."

Some groups, like the Humane Society of the United States, contend that reports of abandoned horses in Kentucky and elsewhere are wildly overblown. "We've been unable to find a factual basis for most of the stories we've seen," society spokeswoman Stacy Segal said. [More]
In arguments like this, where any compromise would require disavowal of a deeply held belief even in the face of convincing evidence seldom is resolved. Mostly the world adapts to it quietly and we outlive the fallacy.

The economics of horse ownership, the direction of the overall economy, and the lack of buyers of last resort tend to make me suspect this problem is not only real, but growing. But the answer may not be to reopen horse slaughter facilities, although I support looking into this. For the reason I mentioned horse activists have allowed themselves little room to maneuver on that issue. But as more and more animals wind up in incapable ownership another solution equally repugnant to some may be offered.

License and regulate horse ownership. Require credit checks and horse care training programs - just like buying a car. Make disposal costs part of the upfront purchase price as we are now doing for appliances, perhaps via mandatory insurance policies. The advent of animal identification should also be a priority for activists to ensure animals are correctly linked to responsible owners. In short, treat horse like cars.

I'm not crazy about introducing this type of hassle into the horse industry, but the absence of alternatives will likely lead us to more stories like this one.
The number of abused and abandoned horses is growing in Sonoma County, and local officials say the poor economy is partly to blame.
Bob Garcia, Sonoma County’s veteran animal control officer, said he’s seen this trend before: When tough economic times hit, horses are neglected.

“It just costs a lot of money now to feed a horse . . . We saw more horses abandoned last year than in the year prior to that. It seems like there’s a trend in that direction, which is concerning everyone.”

There were 18,000 horses in Sonoma County in 2005 according to the most recent survey of the population conducted by Sonoma State University. That was up from 14,000 horses in 1998.

Grant Miller, a veterinarian contracted to provide medical services to horses seized by the county, said in 2006 there were only three abuse cases requiring horses to be taken from properties. That number jumped to 30 in 2007. And 2008 opened with two more cases, which head to court this week. [More]
Horse advocates rightly point out there is scant data to support linkage of the slaughter ban to horse abandonment, but the anecdotal evidence is mounting as horse rescue facilities are being overwhelmed and the market plummets for old horses. And the rise in horses exported for slaughter offers economic proof of the depth of the problem.

If the data should manifest, it will take a great deal of spin to affect the suffering, I'm afraid.


Ol James said...

Hey Mr. John, like you I am not a horse person, although I have been reffered to as eating and sweating like one, but I have been refefered to as a pig, bull headed and the list goes on. I think a horse is a majestic animal. I don't own one nor do I intend on owning. It is sad that there is such a plight. It dosen't help that peta is involved. Like the naacp I don't have much use for organizations that exist just to sue any one at any time for any reason.
Don't you think that this is happening to other livestock as well?? but Livestock Farmers have a lot more options.

Anonymous said...

Actually, no, they don’t shoot the horses. A more accurate title for your column might read, “They take a camp pony that someone’s daughter rode all last summer in Maine, stun him multiple times with the captive bolt while he struggles in great distress, and then string him up - hopefully unconscious – and slit his throat until he bleeds to death, don’t they?”

Readers of this column should know that horses going to slaughter are for mostly not shot. Shooting would be too humane. They are killed via captive bolt, and it is a shocking thing to witness, for it does not work well with horses. Veterinarians For Equine Welfare have roundly denounced this method of killing horses at slaughter, for it is an ineffective method for equines and causes great suffering to the horse in his last hour of life.

Humanitarians around the country are horrified by the many injustices of the horse slaughter process. Not to mention the fact that most Americans find the idea of consuming horseflesh to be repulsive. To paraphrase one outraged Texan: We don’t eat Trigger in the United States.

Why is there outrage? Americans do not view horses the same way they view cattle and other animals bred for human consumption. Horses are not bred for food. Your viewpoint steadfastly ignores this important point. They are performance animals and companion animals. To most Americans, this is a betrayal of Traveler, Trigger, Ficka, The Black Stallion, Mr. Ed, Seabiscuit, Hidalgo and Barbaro.

With regard to economics, the horse industry has been overproducing horses for years, and this is because it has been so easy to “get rid” of horses when it is inconvenient to keep them. The horse slaughter industry has been alive and well in large part because the public did not know of it’s existence. As with any glutted market in a free market economy, a market correction is underway in this industry. Since the U.S. slaughter plants closed, this is to be expected when supply vastly overreaches demand. While the horse rescues have increased in both number and capacity to help offset this temporary situation, killer buyers and auctions houses continue to make it difficult for the rescues to take these horses. I have seen this personally, so do not think for one minute that there aren’t enough compassionate people to help out. The horse slaughter industry kingpins have made it very difficult for the rescues. The media propaganda put out by the agricultural sector with false reports of abandoned horses everywhere, well, it’s nonsense.

As to any horse breeder intending to move from breeding horses to breeding cattle, well, you have an apples and oranges issue with that statement. Breeding and raising horses is vastly different from raising cattle. The training aspect alone is one of the most significant difference, as horses are trained for performance. Responsible horse breeding programs require a vastly more wide-ranging set of skills. For those who move from breeding horses to breeding cattle, well, good. That cuts down on indiscriminate breeders, which is what I suspect they folks are if they see breeding horses and cattle as interchangeable options.

Horses are not food animals. Humanitarian treatment of horses is simple: We must look at what is done to these majestic animals that have helped found this nation, and change their fate. I see no complexity in any of this. We are not China, where dogs are raised for food. We are the United States, where our horses - domestic and wild -have forever symbolized the freedom upon which this country has been founded. Where has our humanity gone?

Myra & John said...

Horses are NOT a car and you cannot treat them like a car. You can't even pretend to treat them like a car! Even if you could treat them like a car -- you have a salvage yard as an option for your car!!! When your car outlives its useful life, it goes to the junkyard. Are horses livestock or a pet? As a horse breeder, I don't always get the quality of animal I was breeding for. The slaughter market sets a base price. With no base, you have no market. You can't even give them away. We will only hear more about horses being turned loose.
If you raise show cattle, you at least have the option of sending the cattle that aren't show quality to market.
We raise horses and we try to sell all of ours privately but we do understand that the slaughter market has its place and is needed. It is part of the circle of life. If you grow up on a farm, you are taught and I believe, have a better understanding of that circle of life. That everything does die. It is part of nature.
You have a bunch of newbies coming in and buying horses due to the fact that the market is so bad and you can buy one really cheap. Then you learn that it costs a lot to keep one. Then the neglect comes into play. How does that help the situation or anyone involved??
PETA loves the fact that horses aren't being slaughtered but have they done anything to help solve the problem they have created?? Why don't they just go around and buy up all of those horses they have "saved" and find out what the real world is like??
Do you honestly believe that PETA will stop with the horse industry slaughter? They will go after the cattle and hogs and sheep . . . then what will happen? Horses are slaughtered for human consumption as well.

John Phipps said...


1. Happy Easter
2. Thank you for reading my work and your thoughtful comments.

I do not place any credence in the domino theory of ending slaughter, i.e. if we horse slaughter is stopped cows will be next. The politics of an industry built around meat consumption as the only purpose is vastly different than the equine industry for which consumption was only a tiny subsector.

To seems to me we gotta stop knee jerk reactions to organization names as well, whither it's PETA, or EWG or OPEC. It is inefficient and inaccurate. Worst of all it virtually precludes finding any solutions to problems.

Carole: I can almost hear the loud and numerous amens to your articulate and heart-felt words. We simply disagree on several points.

Your strong emotional attachment to horses is as inexplicable to me as my indifference is to you. Not all people from that attachment. Perhaps this you feel this diminishes my "humanity" but I have searched my conscience, scripture and human cultural traditions for guidance and found little to suggest it is an essential part of being human or moral.

In fact, although this may be upsetting, as an engineer the horse represents to me an astonishing investment of energy, as do all large mammals. Nature abhors vacuums, but also waste, and such a mass of hard to manufacture molecules would never be allowed to simply dissipate if man were not involved. Horses may be many things but one aspect of their intrinsic nature is to be consumed as prey. I do not say this to be unkind, but to acquaint you an uncomfortable fact that those like me who do not share your bond with horses may not necessarily do so because of moral defect, but after sincere reflection.

Your reference to horses and this country also called to mind a lecture I just listened to (more in a later post) about the "Columbian exchange" whereby after the discovery of the New World. Europe got potatoes, corn and syphilis from America. America got rabbits, smallpox and horses. And it changed this continent forever. Horses are immigrants like most Americans, and a symbol of a culture predating 1492, as I see it.

Millions of Americans support your views passionately, hence my observation this problem will have to become oppressively burdensome before any compromises will be found, I fear. I hope it does not, but I will revisit the evidence in a later post in an effort to at least offer civil discussion.

m & j:

My suggestion for licensing is arguably not a stroke of genius, but an effort to fund the inherent economic externalities of disposal, long-term care, etc. as well as discourage horse ownership by those who cannot responsibly undertake it.

I'm open to other ideas, but we seem to be compiling a considerable list of unacceptable solutions, and a remarkably short file of ideas both sides will even consider.

Consequently, I expect this stalemate to produce some really painful situations as we progress determinedly along the current path.

I think we can do better, even it if takes a few tries.

Anonymous said...

My brother in law breeds horses, and we talked about just this subject recently. His comment was that none of his horses have brands, and when they get to the age they are outliving their usefulness, chances are they are just going to be wandering the road ditches, or maybe a city park.
The reason? If he has the horse disposed of, the fee runs from $25-$100, and will probably only go up.
If he shoots it himself, he still has a carcass lying around that will be rotting, stinking, etc.
However, if a horse is found wandering around in a park, or roadside, it is the government's responsibility.
He, as well as most of his horse-raising friends are taking this as a slap in the face from 'big city government' and would have no problems conscience-wise hauling the horse to the outskirts of the nearest city & letting them take care of it.
As he put it, the 'big city government' people have taken something of his, that had a value of $500 or better, and suddenly it is going to COST him $100 to get rid of it, effectively costing him $600+ per horse. Imagine the outcry (and used cars lying around) if suddenly instead of being able to sell old cars for scrap, you had to PAY someone to haul it off for you.
I agree with carole on the one hand that they shouldn't be slaughtered in an inhumane way, but instead of just banning horse slaughter, perhaps we should look for a more humane way to do it. Personally, I don't see how just leaving horses to die, or more or less forcing the horse owners to kill them themselves can be more humane than proper technique used at a slaughterhouse. 'Saving' a horse from a slaughterhouse doesn't necessarily mean 'saving' the horse. Around here, anyway (Nebraska) horses are primarily used for working with livestock, and when they go to slaughter it is usually because they are old or injured, and it is more humane to end it quickly than let it suffer.

Unknown said...

Although there are many horse rescue agencies, the fact is that they do not initiate to meet the needs of the huge number of unwanted horses. ? It would be great to educate people and explain that breeding isn't for everyone. Because of the excessive amounts of breeding 93% of the 100,000 horses being slaughtered every year are perfectly healthy, but the truth is the United States is over populated with
Equine animals.