A friend recently wrote: “Horse meat … why would anyone in their right mind want to eat it??? Very important issue. … Boo on Canada.” Attached was a link to a video.
My friend’s attitude and this video made me imagine a possible win-win solution to end some of our world’s misery.
I love and respect horses. As former president of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and the current president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics, I have carefully examined the sad situation that has inadvertently developed for unwanted horses since the ban on slaughter took effect five years ago.
My empathy and grief for these horses spurred me to organize a two-hour equine ethics session at the American Veterinary Medical Association last July. My guest speaker, Dr. Robert M. Miller, an equine behaviorist as well as cartoonist and philosopher, spoke of major equine ethics problems from many viewpoints.
Dr. Miller discussed horses’ roles as beloved companion animals, private sport horses, race horses, work horses—all the way down the human-animal bond scale to being livestock. Wild horses have it worse, because they forage on dryer land than their ancestors roamed in the West. Miller said something to the effect of: “As a species, horses are in a dilemma. These days they are stuck with more grief and cruelty than ever before with the exception of the war horse during World War I. This is because the horse, which has forever been categorized as livestock with a utilitarian purpose, is now firmly categorized by Western society as a companion animal, joining dogs and cats and companion birds.”
The horse slaughter ban resulted from a number of issues.
First, many people who would not eat dog or cat similarly do not want to eat horsemeat. However, all societies eat game birds and chicken despite the fact that all societies keep song birds, love birds, parakeets, parrots and hookbills of all colors and sizes.
Second, advocates for “used up” horses were sincerely trying to improve the process and methods used in horse slaughter facilities. The typical facility used cow-slaughter stunning methods, which do not work well on many horses, leading to cruel experiences at slaughter. The well-meaning equine advocates met with reluctance, opposition or delays from the slaughterhouse personnel. This continued reluctance to change motivated them to bypass individual proprietors of abattoirs and appeal to the public on behalf of horses.
Third, society has developed a growing understanding of animals. The human-animal bond as an aesthetic carried the privately kept riding and sport horse into the companion animal category.
Fourth, animal advocate groups organized an effective campaign that resonated with politicians. The campaign appealed to equestrians and animal lovers. The groups rallied together under the feeling that if Americans would not eat dogs or cats, then horses should not be slaughtered or eaten by humans as well.
Fifth, because horse slaughter facilities declined to comply with the requests of equine advocates to improve slaughter methods, the advocates organized to promote a total ban on horse slaughter in the USA.
Sixth, politicians were easily lobbied to support the horse slaughter ban despite factual and reasoned opposition by representatives from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, individual race track and equine veterinarians, people in the equine industry, farmers, ranchers and wild horse station supervisors.
Although well intended, the horse slaughter ban combined with the poverty and property loss generated by the extended recession threw horses into the largest abandonment and cruelty situation the country has seen. The welfare of American horses is now even worse than at the turn of the 20th century, after war and after automobiles replaced horsepower for transportation.
Based on the discussions at our AVMA equine ethics sessions and my interest in global veterinary medicine, I would like to propose some food for thought.
Many of us believe that horses should never suffer painful practices. This includes mean training techniques, severe confinement, starvation, humiliation, abuse and neglect.
Many veterinarians are witness to the horrendous equine neglect and cruelty that is so common today. They see cruelty in the way horses are transported to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. They witness the starvation of abandoned horses. These veterinarians, including me, share a different viewpoint about the horse slaughter ban. We have taken an oath to prevent suffering and to protect the welfare of animals. But the opposite has happened for our equine friends.
Horses and Humans
Veterinarians and public health care workers who are involved in global human health see the incredible damage that starvation wreaks upon poor people and their children in countries all over the world. Is there a solution that would help end the starvation of these poor humans and horses?
My idea feels right in view of human starvation escalating globally and thousands of horses being doomed to starvation, abandonment and waste.
My heart tells me that respecting horses also means allowing them to change worlds without pain or suffering when their owners no longer want them, and new owners cannot be found. Horse owners, especially with the recession and predicted drought in the South and Midwest, need more options than the “either or” forced on them by the slaughter ban.
Trouble with Emotions
Arguments about the ban get emotional and ruin any real focus on the situation that horses have endured since the horse slaughter ban. Horses are abandoned all over the place, on freeways and parking lots and in deserts.
The wild mustang problem—including starvation because they have been driven into the deserts which are not their natural grazing lands—has been amplified by the slaughter ban.
As a result of the slaughter ban, more equine neglect and cruelty have occurred in the USA than anyone ever imagined.
Veterinarians who opposed the ban knew it would be very harsh for unwanted horses. I don’t think any equine advocate, animal lover or politician who favored the ban could have imagined how horrible being left alive would become for so many unwanted horses as the recession deepened.
Well-to-do equestrians seek and prefer the best (therefore costly) options for their terminal companion horses, providing them with private euthanasia then burial or cremation. This option is great and appropriate for pet horses.
However, for the horses considered working livestock by their owners, who formerly could get a little cash for culling their stock, it was a bad deal. The money was often used to buy sound horses for the job.
So the horse owner lost out two ways: no income and more expense to pay for euthanasia and body disposal. This double hit in recessionary times largely explains the unwanted horse abandonment problem.
Thousands of horse owners need and want repeal of the horse slaughter ban. So do the veterinarians who witness the suffering and abuse of horses during transportation to abattoirs in Canada and Mexico. So do rescue organizations that are overwhelmed by the numbers of unwanted horses. Many rescue groups have fallen into financial hardship since the drought in the Midwest, which has raised hay prices to almost $500 per month per horse.
Under my proposal, newly certified equine abattoirs would provide humane, as in no fear, no pain, very fast, slaughter for unwanted horses, and their meat products would be directed to starving nations.
The facilities would be designed by world renowned Professor Temple Grandin, Ph.D., of Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin, who has autism, is celebrated for her designs of cattle abattoirs that keep cows from becoming afraid as they go through their final steps before being slaughtered in a humane way.
This proposal would put an end to the sadness of the suffering of America’s unwanted horses and of their potential nutrition rotting in the earth as poor nations suffer with millions starving.
All American ranchers, farmers and horse owners should be able to sell their unwanted horses to certified humane equine slaughter facilities to help alleviate global human starvation.
Food science experts, perhaps headed by the University of California, Davis, could develop processes to convert the meat and bone into lightweight products in vacuum-sealed bags for easy transport and long shelf life to be shipped across the world.
American animal lovers can vote for kind equine slaughterhouses and they can repeal the slaughter ban with the stipulation that at least 90 percent of the products be converted into easily transportable food products to ease world starvation.
Better Fates for Both
This is a much better solution than abandonment, starvation and slow death endured by the underrepresented horses and people of our global society. Let’s put this effort into action by informing everyone you know who has the energy, the vision and the contacts who can make this proposal a healthy reality.
It is a win for unwanted horses and a win for the hungry.
Anyone who truly loves horses will find that the horse slaughter ban pushed many horses into unimaginable and unthinkable misery. Anyone who loves horses who witnesses their plight and who looks at world starvation might see the link that could mean a win-win situation for both sides.
Even people who won’t consider consuming the meat themselves might be willing to allow millions of tons of nutritious horse meat to nourish the hungry.
This is about reducing human starvation and equine starvation, abuse and neglect.
It’s about developing valuable protein products from humanely slaughtered horses that would help reduce the horror that starvation puts on human families.
I would love to see the equine industry mobilize its amazing energy and generosity to create special equine abattoirs in strategic locations so that horses do not suffer during long truck rides to these abattoirs. I would also like to see the development of mobile abattoirs that can go to remote areas and serve where they are needed to spare the horses a long drive.
I would love to see the day that equestrians, animal advocates, vegetarians, vegans and the American voter via Congress could all feel proud that jointly, they linked together two disparate groups and reduced their mutual misery.
The world is not too small for its growing population if we can change our societal mindset and decide NOT to waste and bury one of our nation’s natural resources, the horse.
Granted, I don’t have all the answers. But together, we can figure them out.
Dr. Villalobos is a past president of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. Her column appears every other month.