(HORSE SLAUGHTER) NEBRASKA — Although the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. shut down in 2006, nearly 140,000 American horses are killed for food each year. How could that be? Horses are transported to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered just outside our borders. There is a hot dispute going on between ranchers, government officials, and animal rights groups regarding whether the slaughterhouse ban has done more to hurt or help horses. Read on for an excellent distillation of this complicated issue. — Global Animal
John Schoneberg, a Nebraska breeder who has taken in hungry horses, says a slaughtering ban has not improved horses' lives. Photo credit: Brian Lehmann for The New York Times.

New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger

LINCOLN, Neb. — The closing of the country’s last meat processing plant that slaughtered horses for human consumption was hailed as a victory for equine welfare. But five years later just as many American horses are destined for dinner plates to satisfy the still robust appetites for their meat in Europe and Asia.

Now they are carved into tartare de cheval or basashi sashimi in Mexico and Canada.

That shift is one of the many unintended consequences of a de facto federal ban on horse slaughter, according to a recent federal government study. As the domestic market for unwanted horses shrinks, more are being neglected and abandoned, and roughly the same number — nearly 140,000 a year — are being killed after a sometimes grueling journey across the border.

“When they closed the plants, that put more of a hardship on our horses than the people who wanted to stop the slaughter can imagine,” said John Schoneberg, a Nebraska horse breeder who recently took in three horses from a nearby farmer who said that he was unable to pay for feed and would otherwise turn them loose.

The study’s findings have been fiercely contested by animal welfare groups, which argue that most of the problems stem from the economic downturn and the high price of feed. The study also breathed new life into the long-smoldering battle over whether to allow the resumption of domestic horse slaughter or, alternatively, to prohibit the animals from being shipped abroad for their meat.

In recent weeks lawmakers have pushed Congress to take action in both directions. The Government Accountability Office, which conducted the study, concluded that either option would be better than the status quo, but advocates on both sides, while hopeful, said a resolution did not appear imminent.

“It’s just a hot political issue,” said Dr. Whitney Miller, a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, which supports allowing horse slaughter. “It’s hard to see something definitive happening.”

The effect of the standoff has been deeply felt in rural states like Nebraska. Horse breeders and the owners of livestock auctions say that eliminating slaughter basically removed the floor for horse prices, allowing the market to collapse and forcing many out of the business. One reason, they say, is that owners are now forced to pay hundreds of dollars to euthanize and dispose of unwanted horses when they used to receive about that much to sell them to slaughterhouses.

Loose horses waiting to be auctioned. Photo credit: Sally Ryan for The New York Times

This year, Nebraska became one of a number of states — along with Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota and others — that have pushed to resuscitate the dormant horse slaughter industry, which produced meat valued at an estimated $65 million a year before closing. Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican, signed a law to take steps to regulate horsemeat at the state level that passed the single-chamber legislature, the Unicameral, with only one dissenting vote. 

These efforts have been fiercely opposed by animal rights groups, which rejected as ridiculous the argument that horses would be better off if they could be killed for meat. Pointing to their own research, they say any increase in improper care for horses can be connected to the economy, rather than to the elimination of slaughter. And if prices have declined, they say, that is because the ban removed an incentive to overbreed horses.

Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said that horse owners should commit to providing lifetime care for the animals. He said surveys had found widespread opposition to killing horses for their meat.

“Horses are different than cows and pigs in one very important sense, in that they are not raised for slaughter,” he said.

But there is an enduring chasm in how horses are viewed.

“A horse, to me, is a livestock animal like a cow, sheep or a goat,” said Orbie Bonnett, a Nebraska rancher who stopped selling horses after prices plummeted. “A lot of folks nowadays look at a horse like a pet, like a dog or a cat. When you have a lot of money folk looking at this that way, well, there goes your slaughterhouses, there goes your market and there goes your horse folk — they just can’t make it anymore.”

The United States, much of it settled on horseback, has never really taken to eating horse except in times of need. But elsewhere, the meat — lean and protein-rich — is prized as a delicacy. Selling to a slaughterhouse has long been a way to make some money, to get rid of an old or unwanted horse no longer able to perform at a racetrack, show ring or ranch.

While animal rights groups pushed for the elimination of horse slaughter in the United States, advocates say that an unintended result has been that animals are now forced to endure harrowing journeys to Canada or Mexico, where they may face more gruesome deaths. Photo credit: Sally Ryan for The New York Times.

The last slaughterhouses for horses, in Texas and Illinois, closed after Congress stripped financing for federal inspections of horse slaughter in 2006, a move that effectively banned the sale of the meat. That year, only 105,000 horses were slaughtered domestically; 33,000 from the United States were slaughtered abroad. Last year, 138,000 or more were slaughtered abroad, according to government figures. (The population of horses in the United States is about nine million.)

“It’s slightly hypocritical to allow these horses to be slaughtered anyway up in Canada or Mexico and not allow people here to get the income or serve the meat,” said Hugue Dufour, a chef in New York who cooked horse while working in Canada.

Now owners have to pay to get rid of horses. Debby Brehm, director of the Nebraska Quarter Horse Association, spent $200 last month to euthanize a sick horse and $150 more for it to be hauled to a rendering plant. Other owners keep them but are unable to bear the thousands of dollars a year it can cost to feed and care for them. As a result, the sight of malnourished animals is familiar, Ms. Brehm said, and stories abound of horses abandoned on public and private land and even, in one audacious case, in someone else’s horse trailer.

“You see a lot of malnourished and abandoned horses that probably would have been humanely slaughtered before,” said Windy Allen, a horse trainer in the state.

Others say the ban is costing them money, too.

The Southeast Nebraska Livestock Auction used to sell about 100 horses every month, but now that may be the total for a year, said Dale Steinhoff, the owner. At Central Nebraska Packing, which used to slaughter horses but now buys more than one million pounds of horsemeat a year for sale to zoos, the meat is far more expensive when imported from Canada, said Lloyd Woodward, general manager.

And, even as they pay less, those who buy the animals for slaughter — a group known as “kill buyers” — say they are struggling to cover their costs.

“The Mexicans are getting rich off us,” said Derry Mayfield, who buys about 40 horses a month and sometimes has them given to him for no cost. “They’re buying these horses cheap because they can. We have no other options.”

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  1. This is all so -so true. As a breeder of around 100 mares, I can tell you it is a horrible sight to watch an old horse slowly die because it can no longer chew it's food or even utilize any dood that it may consume. This process takes a long time. Is this more humane then a short trip to a closeby slaughter house and a quick humane death, I don't think so!


  2. The notion that legalizing slaughter will end abuse and neglect is utter poppycock. Here is a link to a recent abuse case of over sixteen horses in Germany who were abused for years and maimed for life from neglect. In Germany, they not only slaughter their horses, but they also eat them. Does this look like restored dignity? Slaughter never killed the industry, the falling economy did. You want to restore the horse industry, be more selective in your breeding, in your selling, and train your horses. Report abuse and neglect, which by the way has actually statistically dropped over the years if you do your research. We do not need to torture animals because the economy sucks. We need to protect them, humanely euthanize those who are suffering, and impose strict laws on overbreeding, abuse, and neglect. Period.


  3. What a bunch of pro-slaughter propaganda! The closing of the domestic plants had NO effect of horse welfare except they weren't being stolen for slaughter nearly as much as they were when our plants were open.

    As for this idea of all these abandoned, neglected horses – since there was NEVER a loss of the "slaughter option" for even one day. If the people who are supposedly abandoning and neglecting their horses, the only reason they didn't go to slaughter was because their owners did not CHOOSE to send them to slaughter. The option was ALWAYS there.

    Also, we only had THREE plants and one was in Illinois and the other two were in Texas. That still makes the horses go on a hell of a long ride in conditions no better than they are now. The slaughter plants in Mexico and Canada are regulated by the same people who regulated our plants – The European Union. The rules are exactly the same. Our USDA took literally thousands of pictures of the most horrific cruelty but didn't DO anything about it. They looked the other way.

    Actually, statistics from the places where our plants were show that horse abuse and neglect INCREASED while the plants were operating, and returned to previous levels once the plants were shut down. Violent crime also increased in the areas around the plants.

    You people need some new material, because you're not fooling anyone any more.

  4. Horses have never been used for meat. They have been companions. They have been transportation. Making them meat to eat is so barbaric and so sad. Why do people need even more meat to eat. This is becoming a very sad country and world. Stop doing such evil and sinful things.

  5. Hardly an “excellent distillation” of the facts. Merely a meager nod towards equine advocates while extensive quotes by breeders with no business sense permeates this one sided article.

    “LIVING” horses breathe life into the equine industry, ones that eat, need farrier work, vet work, ride in trailers, attend functions and meets…that is where the real dollars are earned. $200 bucks from a kill buyer does not a fortune make.

    Breeders have gotten lazy breeding with no limits and throwing away what they don’t want and to date they have not smartened up, particularly the AQHA. There is absolutely no concept of or consideration given for the simple principle of “supply and demand”.

    These people don’t have a clue.

    “If you can’t feed it, Don’t Breed It!” duhhhhhhhhhhhh.

  6. It is excruciating to read the logic of those wanting to reinstate slaughterhouses on American soil. It is simpleton and ignorant or just plain out denial of their obligation to provide for an animal who serves decades in toil and sacrifice to its human caretaker, UNLIKE the cow or pig who lives a year at the most. It is hypocrisy for ANYONE to say that a horse is JUST livestock. If it were not for the horse carrying or pulling or showing, jumping, roping, barrel racing, being pretty, procreating – MOST of the so-called horse industrialists would not be in business. It is not the sale of the horse’s body that is important here, it is the commerce surronding the existence of the horse. Today, horses heading to slaughter account for only 1% of all horses that die on American soil. That is not a terribly big problem. That means 99% of all other horses die through accident, disease, or euthanasia and are buried at the owner’s expense or rendered. That is the norm of a person caring for their horse. It is the absolute MINORITY of horse owners who want slaughter and it affects us all – from those would steal our horses so make a buck, animal control calls for abuse on the ranch, on transport, in kill pens. Then there is the cost of the pollution and waste from a slaughterhouse that will cause the property on which they stand to be unusable for decades, not to mention the air pollution from rotting flesh and intestines.

    Abuse of the horses occurs because slaughter does exist and is easily obtainable for those who desire to go that route. They can not feed the horse, allow it to breed, have it injury itself and not call the vet or just because they are sick of it – watch it slowly die. All they have to do is call their local killbuyer and either have the horse picked up or take it down to their local auction. There is no hardship. Horses selling for slaughter have always gone for the lowest dollar simply because kill buyers will not pay more. The horse is then tortured for 24-36 hours – no food or water (real messy when kill time arrives) – until it gets across the border, even across Canadian borders where controls are better.

    Horse slaughter is just terrible. Horses scream in terror – they feel terror. They are prey animals, their minds are honed to know danger when they smell it and it is against every cell in their body to approach an object that smells like death and blood. They can smell the slaughterhouse miles before any human can. They donot deserve this betrayal. Please contact Washington, D.C. – send a letter to President Obama, to keep his promise to ban horse slaughter. We CANNOT wait any longer.