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June 15, 2007

Abandon the Myth of the Unwanted Horse

I must say that the proponents of horse slaughter have done a pretty good job of staying on message and thereby confusing the issue. They know that Americans care about animal welfare, so they have been forced to concoct an argument that somehow makes horse slaughtering for foreign gourmands seem well justified and humane. The argument they’ve come up with is as novel as it is spurious: if we shut down the slaughterhouses, then people will abandon horses or even abuse them because they won’t know what else to do with them.

Brown horse rescued from slaughter by The HSUS
© The HSUS
Amazing Grace, a former show horse, was among 30 that
were rescued from slaughter by The HSUS.

This argument not only places little faith in our fellow citizens and their sense of responsibility, but also amounts to unvarnished conjecture.

If someone were to abandon or abuse a horse, then these individuals would be subject to prosecution under state anti-cruelty laws. Neglect and cruelty are forbidden in almost every state, and people who resort to such behavior would be subject to strong and appropriate penalties. So let’s be clear that there are consequences for individuals who would resort to abandonment and neglect.

If you take on a horse, just as if you take on a dog or cat, you take on a solemn responsibility—to care for a dependent creature. You have a moral and legal obligation not only to feed and care for the animal, but to dispense properly with the creature if you decide you can no longer care for the animal. If you cannot do that, you should not have a horse in the first place. The HSUS is developing programs to lay out the facts for would-be horses owners, so that people will make even more informed decisions.

Horse owners have a number of options if they decide to no longer care for their horse. The vast majority of these horses will be purchased or leased by others who are looking for riding or companion horses. Horse rescues and sanctuaries are able to take care of others, and there is a growing network of more than 400 in the United States (The HSUS operates one of the largest sanctuaries—the Black Beauty Ranch near Dallas). Rescue groups take in horses, give them loving care for a short while, and then adopt them to new homes, making space for new horses at their facility. Proponents of horse slaughter fail to mention that these operations can rehome tremendous numbers of horses each year, even if they have limited space on any given day.

A less desirable option is euthanasia, but it’s still a far better option than hauling them long distances and sending them to a slaughterhouse, where the animals experience fear, pain and terror in the killing process. Humane euthanasia by injection generally induces unconsciousness and results in a rapid and humane death. Humane euthanasia and disposal costs amount to less than one month’s care in most parts of the country.

Gray horse rescued from slaughter by The HSUS
© The HSUS
Sahara and her mother were spared from
slaughter and given sanctuary at The HSUS'
Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch.

All of that aside, I feel that the horse slaughter advocates are basically threatening lawmakers and others taking a look at the ethics of horse slaughter. Their proposition is simple: if some people are not allowed to slaughter horses, then they will be cruel to horses. Well, I don’t think we should look to them for ethical decision-making or put much stock in the credibility of people who would deal with horses in that way.

For those who would choose that route, then they should be prosecuted, as I mentioned above. But I do believe that we’ll see people exert more self control than the horse slaughter advocates suggest.

The best place to look for hard evidence to validate the abandonment theory is California, which banned slaughter by voter initiative in 1998. One would think that abuse and neglect would have been steadily on the rise in California in the past decade, if the horse slaughter advocates' theory was to play out. But in the last 10 years since the ban was imposed, law enforcement and animal care and control agencies have reported no corresponding increase in neglect or abuse cases. There has, however, been a 34 percent drop in horse theft—and one of the purposes of a horse slaughter ban is to halt the illegal acquisition of horses for the slaughter trade.

And let’s look at the larger picture. The American horse population is about 9 million animals, and it’s been on the increase. On average, for the past 5 years, approximately 100,000 American horses have been sent to slaughterhouses annually—slightly more than 1 percent of horses.

And the number has been on the decline for market-related reasons. Not long ago, there were about 10 horse slaughter plants in the United States and twice as many horses being sent to slaughter as there have been in recent years. Earlier this year, before The HSUS and others went to lawmakers and the courts to shut the operations down, there were three operating plants.

So the question is, if the total horse population has been on the increase, and if there are fewer horses going to slaughter, what’s happened to all of these horses? If we accept the argument of horse slaughter advocates, it would stand to reason that we’d have 100,000 or more horses roaming the streets or starving in pastures. But that’s not been the case, and people have been much more responsible than the slaughter industry would give them credit for.

Brown and black horses rescued from slaughter by The HSUS
© The HSUS
These horses were led to the very brink of slaughter, then
given a new chance at life.

The objective data also shows that horse slaughter is not the choice of owners who are dealing with lame and very old horses. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, more than 92 percent of horses that are slaughtered are in “good condition,” so could easily lead productive lives in new homes.

The fact is, horse slaughter provides an easy out for indiscriminate breeders and owners who would rather sell their horse to the highest bidder than take proper care of the animal. We should stop rewarding these people with the easy route of slaughter and stop allowing them to profit from irresponsible behavior.

The horse has a special place in the American experience. We do not eat horses, and we do not want them subjected to the cruelties associated with long-distance transport and slaughter so that foreign-owned corporations can profit. If you agree, write your two U.S. Senators and your U.S. Representative, and urge them to support the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, S. 311 and H.R. 503.

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