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Horses Spared in U.S. Face Death Across the Border

 NY Times - January 11, 2008 - SHIPSHEWANA, Ind.

At the weekly horse auction here, No. 274, a handsome chestnut-colored draft horse, looked at the surrounding men while being led into a small ring. Two of the men looked back, calculating how much meat the animal’s carcass would yield, and started bidding accordingly.

There is no pretense about what happens to the horses sold in this area of the auction, known as the kill pen. Just a few months ago, many of them would have met their end at a slaughterhouse in neighboring Illinois. Now almost all will be shipped to Canada and killed there.

Amid pressure from animal rights groups, horse slaughter virtually ended in the United States last year, as courts upheld state laws banning it in Texas and Illinois, home to the nation’s last three horse slaughterhouses.

But there have been unintended consequences, including more grueling travel for tens of thousands of horses now being sent to slaughter in Canada and Mexico, where, animal advocates say, they sometimes face more gruesome deaths.

Horses that wind up as No. 274 did last month here in Shipshewana, near the Michigan state line, may once have carried children on their backs, pulled wagons on a farm, even been to the races. Now they are lame, aged, fractious or unwanted for any of various other reasons. Some are young, never broken in to begin with.

The slaughterhouse closings themselves may have added to the population of the unwanted. In some parts of the country, auctioneers say, the closings have contributed to a drop in the price of horses at the low end of the market, and the added distance in the shipping of horses bound for slaughter, combined with higher fuel costs, means that some small or thin horses are no longer worth the fuel it takes to transport them.

Add to that a rise in hay and grain prices, as well as a general economic slowdown.

“First time in my life I’ve seen livestock that has no value,” said Devin Mullet, owner of Kalona Sales Barn in southeastern Iowa.

After his monthly auction in October, Mr. Mullet said, he shot 28 horses that had failed to fetch any bids. Since then, he has monitored horses coming in for sale, turning away those he thinks are worthless — often yearlings and the aged, which tend to yield less meat. (Horse meat for human consumption is shipped to countries including Belgium, France, Italy and Japan.)

But opponents of horse slaughter say its domestic demise is a victory, if an incomplete one, in their fight to protect animals they see as devoted companions.

“It’s a step closer to the long-term goal of banning slaughter in North America,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “There are fewer horses slaughtered.”

Indeed, even with the busy export to Canada and Mexico, the Agriculture Department estimates that 105,000 American horses were slaughtered in the three countries in 2007, down from some 138,000 the year before.

For many horses, though, export means hundreds more miles of strenuous transit in large trailers. “It’s difficult for them to keep their balance, they’re often crowded, they have no access to food or water while en route,” said Timothy Cordes, a senior veterinarian with the Agriculture Department.

Of particular concern to advocates is the treatment of the horses once they reach Mexico, to which exports have more than tripled. American protections simply do not apply there, Dr. Cordes said.

The American slaughterhouses killed horses quickly by driving steel pins into their brains, a method the American Veterinary Medical Association considers humane. Workers in some Mexican plants, by contrast, disable them by stabbing them with knives to sever their spinal cords, said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

“My worst nightmare has happened,” Dr. Grandin said. “This is an example of well-intentioned but very bad unintended consequences.”

An official with the Mexican agriculture department said the technique described by Dr. Grandin was illegal in Mexico.

Animal rights groups are pushing for federal legislation that would forbid the sale and transport of horses for human consumption, thereby banning the export market. Bills await action in both houses of Congress.

In the meantime, the debate over horse slaughter continues to divide the equine community, pitting organizations against one another. Many thoroughbred associations support both the domestic slaughter ban and the proposed legislation; the American Quarter Horse Association is against them. The issue is so controversial that the American Horse Council, a national lobbying group for the horse industry, declares itself neutral.

Supporters of the ban say the solution to unwanted horses is to euthanize them — by chemical injection, for example, as with a cat or a dog. “Give the horse some dignity,” said Barbara Geittmann, executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society. “It gave you all the ribbons and all the wins.”

But euthanasia and carcass disposal cost upward of $140, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, a veterinary group, and there can be environmental issues related to burial.

At the Shipshewana auction, Keith D. Lambright, an owner and auctioneer, said the price of meaty slaughter horses had dropped to an average of about $230, from roughly $330 a year ago. No. 274 sold for $150, and some in the kill pen brought as little as $30, perhaps to be used as zoo meat.

A fuzzy foal and an emaciated old-timer fetched nothing at all. A woman felt sorry for them and, despite high feed prices, paid $40 for the pair and took them home as pets.

Full article with photos : Horses Spared in U.S. Face Death Across the Border  

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