The Last Roundup

Wild Horses-and Yesterday’s Prized Pets-Get Sent for Slaughter

For Americans out of touch with their rural past, horse auctions offer a vivid and nostalgic reminder of what life was like before the horseless carriage. But appearances can be deceiving. The lively, competitive bidding for everything from month-old foals to worn-out quarter horses masks the fact that the great majority of these horses will be sent to slaughterhouses, where they’ll be processed into meat for foreign consumption.

The slaughter of more than 125,000 horses a year is an ugly business, and it’s not surprising that it’s largely hidden from the horse-loving American public. But the economics of the situation (the “killer-buyers” are often willing to pay three or four times the going rate, and will take old, lame and diseased animals) ensures a steady supply of horses for slaughter. Demand for horse meat is, in fact, up in Europe and the Far East because of mad cow disease fears. Among the profiteers, according to recent reports, are the federal employees charged with managing the 42,000 wild horses and burros on America’s public lands. Such revelations have bred revulsion, lending enormous support for an upcoming California ballot initiative that would ban the sale of horses for slaughter, making it a felony crime.

A "downed" horse lies in manure at Bel-Tex slaughterhouse in Texas.

Wild mustangs were regularyly sent to places like this, but a recent agreement may stop the killing. Photo: Animal Protection Institute

Wild mustangs were regularyly sent to places like this, but a recent agreement may stop the killing.

A “downed” horse lies in manure at Bel-Tex slaughterhouse in Texas. Wild mustangs (right) were regularyly sent to places like this, but a recent agreement may stop the killing.
Photos: Humane Society of the United States (left), Animal Protection Institute (left)

Until recently there were 14 horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. (the largest number in Texas) and another five in Canada, but a wave of closings has consolidated the industry. Horse slaughter hit its peak in the late 1980s, when changes in the federal tax code no longer allowed sheltered investments in thoroughbred breeding operations. Marc Paulhus, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), says that “billions of dollars” were invested by speculators and, when the tax laws changed, the value of high-line animals-everything from racing Arabians to Tennessee Walking Horses-plunged overnight. “Horses with a paper value of $100,000 were sent to slaughter,” Paulhus says. The horse population shot up from 5.5 million to eight million between 1983 and 1986, but just as many horses-2.5 million-were slaughtered between 1986 and 1995. Paulhus says that overbreeding continues, and that racing breeds, most of them relatively young, still make up the greatest percentage of horses slaughtered.

Also being led to slaughter are thousands of wild mustangs rounded up on western range lands by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Last year, an Associated Press investigation revealed that BLM’s adoption programs, which aim to find new homes for wild horses culled in regular roundups, are riddled with abuses. Despite federal laws preventing government officials from using public office for private gain, BLM officers have apparently been buying rounded-up horses (often at prices they themselves set), holding them until they can take title, then selling them to slaughterhouses. In some cases, the government spends $1,100 on roundup fees and boarding for a horse, then sells it for $125 to a BLM employee who will make a $600 profit in selling the animal to slaughter.

At the Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Carmel, California, 45 horses graze, oblivious to what was for many of them a very narrow escape. “We bid against the killer-buyers at auctions,” says board member Deborah Ellsworth. “We wish we could buy them all, but we’re only able to rescue a few.” Four of Redwings’ horses were originally BLM mustangs; they were sent to a killer-buyer auction just two days after their new owner took title to them. “They say it’s legal, but I say it isn’t,” Ellsworth says. “The BLM program was set up to protect horses, not kill them.”

Efforts to stop the BLM abuses have a long history. A coalition including The Fund for Animals and Animal Protection Institute pressed for and, in 1987, obtained a federal court injunction prohibiting BLM from titling wild horses to buyers who it knew would send them to slaughter. But the trips to the killing grounds continued. With a federal judge as mediator, the animal welfare groups and the BLM reached an agreement last October on a reform plan that will require the agency: to obtain from adopters a sworn affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that they do not intend to send their horses to slaughter; to work with slaughterhouses and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors on a notification policy for BLM-branded horses; and to end the policy of allowing more than four horses to be adopted at once (which just make things easier for the killer-buyers). “Selling these horses to slaughterhouses is simply a fraud at the taxpayers’ and the horses’ expense,” says Mike Markarian, a spokesman for The Fund for Animals.

While most humane groups oppose slaughterhouse sales in any form, some have devoted efforts to reforming aspects of the business. The Washington-based American Horse Protection Association (AHPA) was one of a number of groups, including HSUS, pushing for transport reform for slaughterhouse-bound horses. According to Robin Lohmis, AHPA executive director, horses are often carried in double-decker cattle trucks that don’t even allow horses to stand up. Humane lobbying work led to legislation in 1996 that authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to draft federal reform regulations, but it may be 1999 before the new laws are in effect.

Some frontline activists, like Linda Moss of Equus Rescue and Sanctuary in Glendale, California, want to see horse slaughterhouses totally banned, and say transport reforms are wasted effort. “They make it appear that something’s being done, but what they really do is regulate the horse into the agricultural code as an animal for slaughter,” she says.

Groups like Equus, of which there are many in California, form a core activist constituency for the state ballot initiative, which is spearheaded by Cathleen Doyle and Sherri DeBore of Save the Horses. It will likely go before the voters in November, 1998. The initiative, which had 95 percent support in a recent Decision Research poll, would make sending a horse to slaughter a felony, with penalties of up to three years in jail. Selling horsemeat would also be banned.

Not surprisingly, the slaughterhouse owners oppose the petition drive. “That’s a ridiculous effort,” says Grant Heberlein, general manager of Bel-Tex in Fort Worth, Texas. “If it’s passed, thousands of horses will have to be buried and it will create a tremendous problem with groundwater contamination in California.”

Doyle responds that there are more than 300 landfills in California that will accept large carcasses, as well as an extensive network of rendering plants that process euthanized horses into a variety of products. “What you’re getting is disinformation from the horsemeat industry,” Doyle says.