You won’t find the sight or scent of horse meat on the menus of any rib joint or steakhouse in America. Horses have always been more than mere table fare in the long-running story of the United States.
Eating horses was something reserved for desperate settlers in 19th-century America — like the famed Donner Party members who faced starvation after being trapped in cold and snow in the High Sierras. But absent this sort of lifeboat context, raising a forkful of horse sirloin might trigger the same gag reflex as putting dog ribs or cat brisket on the plate in front of you.
The personal affections for and the practical values of horses have long outweighed even the blinding impulses of appetite. Add in their cultural representations as partners in travel and commerce, marvels of sport and endurance, four-footed fellow soldiers in battle — from U.S. Grant’s Cincinnati to Roy Roger’s “Trigger” to Seabiscuit and Secretariat to the fictional “Mr. Ed — and the very idea of horse slaughter seems traitorous.
Countless people have lived the American experience from the high perch of the saddle. These equids helped us stretch the boundary lines of the United States, enabled us find gold and other riches, and served us in all of America’s great conflicts on American soil. Battered troops knew that help was on the way when the cry was heard that “the cavalry was coming.”
That’s why it was always a contradiction to learn of dozens of horse slaughter plants operating in our nation over decades, quietly gathering up animals never raised for food yet butchering them for dinners in foreign markets (and, for a time, for domestic consumption by our pets and zoo animals).
It was “America’s dirty little secret,” aptly stated T. Boone Pickens, the late wildcatter and billionaire businessman, in arguing two decades ago in front of a Congressional committee for a comprehensive ban on horse slaughter in the U.S.
It took a while, but the political movement for protecting horses had a major moment in 2007, with the last equine slaughter plants shuttered after a combination of successful legislative and judicial maneuvers to outlaw them.
But the “kill buyers” and their ilk haven’t faded into the sunset. They’ve been shipping live American horses to Canada and Mexico, where slaughter plants butcher the animals and then package them up for shipment to Asia and Europe.
Last week, the Center for a Humane Economy, with Animal Wellness Action and Animals’ Angels, revealed that the extraterritorial slaughter of American horses is rapidly waning, but it’s still a merciless journey for around 20,000 American horses.
The report notes that Mexican slaughter plants killed 16,362 American horses in 2022 and Canada has killed 2,829 (through Sept. 30, 2022). The hopeful news is that the trafficking of horses has been in steep decline — down from 350,000 American horses destined for slaughter in 1990 to 150,000 in 2010.
Amidst the painful images captured in the investigation (74 pictures of “kill horses” in various states of distress), the findings provide a roadmap for the complete demise of the business of slaughter American horses across the North American continent.
National investigation shows the end of horse slaughter Is near
The report reveals that horses used in racing, summer riding camps, show rings, police and farming work, and even as companions, are opportunistically obtained by “kill buyers,” and kept in bare-minimum survival conditions at holding facilities before they start the long haul to slaughter — the Bouvry Ltd. in Alberta, to Viande Richelieu in Quebec, or to one of a half dozen slaughter plants in Mexico. The shrink-wrapped horse meat then is off to a relative handful of high-end diners at sparsely populated tables in China, Japan, Russia, and a few European nations.
Because most horses during their lifetimes had drug residues in their tissue from treatments administered to them in their earlier lives, the European Union banned the import of all horse meat from Mexico in December 2014. In October 2016, the EU cut back the trade from Canada, requiring that all horses from the United States be kept in a Canadian feedlot for six months prior to slaughter, and that a monitoring system be put into place to track residues in the meat.
While it’s good news that even foreign demand for horse meat is cratering — for health and safety as well as moral concerns — trafficking in horses for foreign slaughter is a form of domestic animal abuse that requires our full attention. Our investigation finds that there can be no worse option for a horse than to be obtained by a ruthless set of commercially linked actors who disreputably obtain horses and then terrorize, injure, and butcher them for meat that nobody needs and very few want.
The report finds that the instant a horse is designated a “kill horse,” handling and treatment deteriorate from horses previously treated as companions or working animals. The kill horses have limited value, and inputs in the form of veterinary care, humane handling and even proper food and water diminish the margins they can get in the kill pen.
You can read about our alarming findings here, with investigators traveling to auctions, holding facilities, and export pens in 10 states and two countries.
Horse slaughter can no longer masquerade as population control
No one disputes that there are some homeless horses, just as there are homeless dogs and cats. The real problem is that the horse slaughter crowd treats homelessness as an economic opportunity rather than a moral responsibility.
Even at current levels, there can be no logical argument that horse slaughter serves as any kind of major safety valve on the disposition of unwanted, elderly, or ill horses. Based on basic life expectancy tables, there are perhaps more than 500,000 horses dying every year in the United States, and horse slaughter provides an end-of-life outcome for only 3 percent of them.
The number of American horses slaughtered annually has declined by more than 90 percent since 1990 and by 75 percent since 2010. And notably, there’s been no uptick in abandonment or cruelty tracked by animal welfare groups during those periods. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.
If it’s wrong to slaughter American horses for human consumption in the United States, it’s wrong to slaughter American horses in Canada or Mexico.
The United States has an annual economic output of $26.6 trillion dollars. Are we really so desperate for commerce that we must abet the trafficking of 20,000 horses to provide loose change for a rag-tag group of kill buyers, kill pen operators, kill transporters, and kill-floor operators? Congress banned transporting dogs and cats for meat in its prior Farm bill in 2018, and it’s time to do the same for horses as lawmakers gear up to build a new Farm bill in 2023.
Horses have always been part of the American story, and horse slaughter was always a footnote that most people failed to see or investigate. Now it’s time that footnote be edited, with 2023 the year that American political leaders finally took an unsparing and honest look at the enterprise and said “never again.”
Here’s how you can help.
Follow this link to generate a letter on your behalf to your U.S. senators your House representative. Then, call 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to the congressman who represents you.