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Animal Defenders of Westchester
P.O. Box 205
Yonkers, NY 10704


Barbaro's Fall Shines Light on Dark Side

May 27, 2006
Sports of The Times

FROM May to June, the horse racing industry is in its glory. Last week at this time, the nation was buzzing about the Preakness, hoping this would be the year for a Triple Crown winner.

But in the wake of the terrible injury to Barbaro, the spirited Kentucky Derby winner, questions have begun to percolate about a bizarre thoroughbred industry, from its training methods to the medication to the routine treatment of horses who aren't superstars. With the Triple Crown now failing to divert attention, horse racing has the rare opportunity to look itself in the mirror.

One of the darker issues to surface is the remnant of a foreign-owned but domestically based slaughter industry in the United States: three slaughterhouses that kill between 70,000 to 100,000 horses every year, according to estimates by John Hettinger, a longtime opponent of the slaughterhouses, that most experts agree with. The slaughterhouses are in Kaufman, Tex.; Fort Worth; and Dekalb, Ill. The carcasses are sent to France, Belgium and Germany for human consumption.

Hettinger, Arthur Hancock and Representative Edward Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, have led a long, arduous fight to eliminate the slaughterhouses in the United States. The legislation has been doggedly and successfully fought by cattle associations and veterinarian groups.

On Thursday, Hettinger, who maintains stables in upstate New York and South Florida, faxed me nearly 40 pages of letters, documents, petitions and other correspondence he has accumulated over the past six years. Hettinger is the passionate force behind this fight.

"Some people like horses, but they love racing," he said.

"I'm not like that. I like racing, but I love horses. This issue isn't going away. I'm in my early 70's, and I'm going to see this out to the end.

"I'm a bird hunter and an angler, so the animal-rights people probably wouldn't draft me," he added. "But this is an obscenity."

Whitfield has introduced a bill that would prohibit the commercial slaughter of horses in the United States.

Arthur Hancock, 63, the owner of Stone Farms in Paris, Ky., said: "The slaughterhouse is a brutal practice. Horses are not part of the food chain.

They're not like pigs and cattle, chickens and sheep. Horses are beautiful, sensitive, spiritual animals. We don't need to do this.

We can take care of our own horses. We can find homes."

This strikes at the complexity of the issue. Can owners take care of their horses? Certainly the wealthy owners have the means, and compassionate owners like Hettinger, who routinely adopts horses that have been abandoned, have the sensibilities. But what about the reckless owners, or the small-time owners?

Last week in Baltimore, Dr. Larry Bramlage was the face of Barbaro's life-saving medical team. What I found surprising was that Bramlage and his association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, oppose Whitfield's legislation on the grounds that slaughterhouses provide an option.

"We have to have to face the fact that there are unwanted horses, uncared-for horses and neglected horses," Bramlage said yesterday from Kentucky. "It's a better scenario for the quality of the horse's life to assure that they'll be taken care of and assured that somebody takes the responsibility not to let them suffer. We don't promote the fact that people have to send their horses to slaughter. If there's any other option, we'd prefer they do that."

Bramlage said he would frame the question as a quality-of-life issue:

"The real question is, 'Are you in favor of the best quality of life that we can provide for all the horses in the United States?' "

Hettinger said that the American Association of Equine Practitioners "equates slaughter for the dinner table with humane euthanasia."

Bramlage described the process by which the horses are slaughtered as instant, humane death. "People think of half-dressed, unshaven people wielding knives," he said. Instead, the slaughterhouses use a bolt gun and a bullet that is on a spring and placed between the horse's eyes and ears. "It shoots out the end and springs back," he said.

This euthanasia system renders the horse instantly unconscious.

"You watch the horse, their eyes don't change, they don't even blink and the ears don't even move," Bramlage said. "They drop straight down instantly."

The presence of these three slaughterhouses, as gruesome as they may seen, raise a larger question: How did the horses get there?

"They got there because they didn't meet somebody's needs," said Tom Lenz, the past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners from Bishop, Calif.

"Some horses weren't fast enough; some weren't good enough athletes," he said. "This isn't something we're going to solve tomorrow morning. We need to look in the mirror."

Lenz said that those who own horses, those who buy horses and those who breed horses need to do some soul-searching and decide what their motives are for owning a horse and their capabilities of taking care of a horse.

"Outlawing processing is not going to solve the problem," he said.

Maybe not, but it's a start. Eliminate the slaughterhouse.

Let the horse die a natural death.


To email Bill Rhoden: [email protected] 




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