The Pros and Cons of Horse Slaughter

By August 1, 2009

Horses shipped to slaughter. (Photo courtesy the Humane Society of the United States)

There are practical as well as commercial arguments that can be made in favor of horse slaughter. There are ethical and environmental reasons to oppose it.

Horse slaughter proponents see the matter primarily in terms of dollars and cents. The so-called “killer buyers” who purchase horses on behalf of slaughterhouses typically shop at auction, where they pay anywhere from twenty  cents to $1 per pound (or about $200 to $1,000 per horse, depending on market conditions). The animals are then shipped to Canada or Mexico, the two North American countries that currently have equine slaughter facilities. There the meat is processed. The end product is sold to countries like France, Belgium and China for $20 to $30 per pound.

“The closure of the horse processing plants has completely decimated the market for horses,” Sue Wallis, a Wyoming state representative and an outspoken proponent for the slaughter movement, wrote in an online post to the Gillette News Record in June. “There is zero market for lower-end animals. The value of all horses has plummeted from 30% to 80%. If you have spent your lifetime building your assets in horses, you have seen your net worth disappear in the last two years.” Wallis went on to assert the legitimacy of “harvesting a horse for food.”

Many pro-slaughter advocates argue that the U.S. is missing out on a lucrative sales opportunity. Possibly in terms of cost per pound, but the last two slaughter plants operating here., which were closed in 2006 and 2007, were owned by European corporations, and the windfall profits accrued overseas. In 1989, the height of U.S. slaughter, an estimated 350,000 horses were processed for food (more than 10 times the number killed in Canada and Mexico combined).

Of course, if horse slaughter was legalized here, U.S. firms could potentially get into the business. The possibility of eventually developing a U.S market for the meat—which is prized by other cultures for its high-protein, low-fat profile—would up the ante considerably. Although there is currently no demand for horsemeat in the U.S., reports have surfaced online of U.S. agricultural interests surveying consumers on whether they’d consider eating it.

While the U.S. beef industry has not experienced revenue decline, American beef consumption seems to be trending downward (from 28.1 billion pounds in 2007 to 27.3 billion pounds in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). U.S. beef export has also contracted. Japan, the largest export market in 2003, purchasing $1.1 billion worth of beef, spent only $439 million in 2008.

To fuel their pro-slaughter campaign, some supporters have tried to circulate within the agricultural community the idea that a federal ban on horse slaughter could be the first step in a vegan plot to eliminate all meat from the American diet. That could hardly be the case. What seems much more likely is that the U.S. beef industry needs a new growth market.

Nutritional value aside, cattle and pigs are prized for their willingness to go submissively to slaughter. Horses are another story. “A horse is halfway between wild and domesticated,” explains John Holland of the Equine Welfare Alliance, who notes that a horse will try to “rip the place apart,” resisting to its last ounce of strength all attempts to forcibly restrain its head, as is done preparatory to slaughter in order to facilitate a pistol shot or captive bolt to the head. The horse’s throat is immediately slit and it is hung upside down on a conveyance to drain its blood (which must be done while the heart is still beating to facilitate expulsion). Proponents say the horse is technically “unconscious” at this point.

Which raises another matter: “Horses are very biologically different than cattle, and they have twice as much blood in their circulatory system,” Holland says, noting that blood is very difficult to neutralize for non-toxic disposal, which makes horse slaughter plants an environmental disaster. (The two last U.S. plants were closed largely on environmental charges.)

Opponents of slaughter say all of the above is horrific, that there is already a very satisfactory food chain in place and that sending horses plucked from the wild or discarded after a lifetime of services to such an end is immoral, inhumane and unjust.

“The pro-slaughter people will say, ‘Oh, this is all about unwanted horses,’” says Holland, “But it’s not. It’s all about the market for horsemeat for human consumption. In 2008 we exported 134,000 horses for slaughter to the U.S. and Canada. That was the second highest number of horses slaughtered in American history. You had to go back to 1995 to find a higher number. If we’re killing horses at pretty much the same rate or higher than we have been, and the population growth is relatively the same, where are all these ‘unwanted horses’ coming from?” Holland suggests the very term, “unwanted horses,” is nothing short of a branding slogan purveyed by pro-slaughter interests.

Are horses just another form of “meat on hooves,” like cattle? A commodity to be exploited like any other food source? Or are they majestic creatures, symbolic of freedom and the unbridled spirit? As a species, they certainly have to their credit a history of working productively with man, helping to build civilization as we know it.

“Horses are like cosmic mirrors,” sums up Holland. “Look at them with callousness and you see a brute, but look at them with love and you see a unicorn.”

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