In summer 2006, I worked on a major story about America's final three horse slaughterhouse operations (login required). E Magazine had sent former intern and ace investigative reporter Josh Harkinson to check out a plant in Texas firsthand.
Josh teamed up with some local animal rights activists, and they walked the perimeter of the slaughterhouse. Through openings in the gray, nondescript building, Josh could see (and photograph) lines of nervous horses being led to you know what. I'll never forget his photos of the de-skinning machine, rolling up horse flesh as if it were sleeping bags.
In part because of news reports like that one, and no doubt due to the tireless campaigning of the Humane Society of the U.S., PETA and many other activists, state governments in Texas and Illinois outlawed horse slaughter. Those final three plants have since closed.
That development marked a victory for horse lovers, but it also has caused some growing pains, as now advocates are reporting a spike in the number of aging horses that require care. Like so much else, the question of horse slaughter has been intimately tied up with economics. It costs several hundred dollars to euthanize and dispose of the body of a dying horse, so struggling and big breeders don't always make that choice. Some still ship their animals out of the country for slaughter and processing, though Congress has talked about making even that practice illegal.
There is a market for horse meat overseas, as well as horse-derived products domestically. It's a sore spot to animal activists and those who consider horses pets, or at least very special animals with close bonds to human beings. On the other side of the fence, major breeders refer to the animals as their "inventory" in a recent USA Today article. When the newspaper conducted a poll asking if ranchers should be allowed to sell horse meat to food distributors overseas, 45% of Americans had no opinion, 30% said no, and 25% said yes.
It remains to be seen whether the surplus of aging, unwanted horses is a temporary adjustment in affairs, or whether longer term changes will need to be made in the equine care world, in order to better provide for animals at the end of their lives. Perhaps if people more fully realize that buying a horse truly means a lifelong commitment, there will be less cases of neglect and abuse.
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