The High-Stakes Battle Over Horse Slaughter

The fight over America’s three remaining horse slaughterhouses has developed into back-and-forth, high-stakes brinksmanship, featuring name calling, Congressional action, outraged city halls and last-minute judicial rulings. Although public opinion and the organized might of the animal welfare and animal rights communities oppose them, the plants—two in Texas, one in Illinois—were still open for business at presstime.

When Congress voted, as an amendment to a Department of Agriculture spending bill, to defund by March 10 the federal meat inspectors the slaughterhouses need to ship their product overseas, the animal groups celebrated a victory.

The plants were down but not out; they petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the right to pay for the inspections themselves, and USDA agreed. The Maryland-based Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), horse slaughter’s primary opponent, promptly went to court. Its request for a preliminary injunction claimed that this latest maneuver thwarted the will of Congress, which it said had clearly wanted the plants shut down. On March 14, the U.S. District Court in Washington denied HSUS" claim, and the slaughterhouse doors stayed open.

"These radical groups are determined to stop the meat processing industry with whatever it takes—full-page ads in the New York Times, or filing frivolous lawsuits with no standing," claimed Charlie Stenholm, the former Texas Congressman who serves as the plants" chief lobbyist.

A coalition of animal protection groups that includes HSUS and the Doris Day Animal League pronounced itself "disappointed" with the latest court ruling. An appeal is being considered, but the groups are also proceeding on other fronts: asking a federal appeals court to reinstate a Texas state law banning sale of horse meat, and pushing for passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (HR 503), which would effect a permanent ban on horse slaughter for human consumption. The bill, said the groups, would "ensure that no American horse is ever forced to suffer the long and painful journey to slaughter at a foreign-owned plant for the culinary desires of foreign gourmands."

HSUS President Wayne Pacelle reacts strongly to Stenholm’s charge that his group is "radical" or endorses violence. "If anyone is pursuing a radical agenda, it is Mr. Stenholm and the people who are paying him," Pacelle says. He adds that passing the horse slaughter ban when it comes up for a vote in Congress, probably this summer, is a "top priority" for HSUS.

Meanwhile, at least one of the plants is on a death watch, since the Board of Adjustments in Kaufman, Texas voted to close down Dallas Crown effective September 30, declaring it a public nuisance because of blood and other effluent clogging municipal sewers, plus a slew of unpaid fines. Dallas Crown will, obviously, appeal.