Horse Slaughter in
by Laura A. Moretti
has been no rest for the incredibly, terribly weary.
They arrive utterly exhausted, frantically falling
over themselves as they dangerously slip on the feces-
and urine-slicked floors of the two-tier cattle truck
that has brought them here. They are pushed forward
with electric prods into the temporary holding pens
outside the killing plant. From California to Texas,
they arrive bearing the scars of their strenuous
30-hour trek across state lines — from other states,
the journey has been nearly 2,000 miles. They arrive
injured, emaciated, pregnant. And they have come a
long way; all of them: registered thoroughbreds,
purebred Arabians, former wild ponies, speckled
appaloosas, draft horses, donkeys, old-timers and
newly born foals. Not a horse is safe from the
number of the horses in the 45-head-packed truck
arrive too injured to walk from the transport
themselves; like any downed animal arriving at
slaughter, they are dragged by their legs to the
killing floor. Dead horses are trashed — fallen and
trampled victims of transport in a truck designed for
animals half their size.
arrive hungry. Thirsty. Terrified. But it matters not.
In just a few hours' time, they will be forced through
kill chutes, shot in their heads with captive-bolt
pistols, butchered, packaged, refrigerated and shipped
abroad by air and by sea to countries where dining on
horse flesh has become a reborn fashion.
images circle through my mind as I climb to the top
rail and survey horses mulling about in the manure and
fly-infested confines of the killer pen — their last
stop here in
before the long and
torturous journey to
. These hapless
creatures — a mere unwanted hundred or two of the
more than 300,000 butchered in the United States —
have become statistics in the yearly export trade in
horse flesh: the little Arabian, back from her lease
to the U.S.-based Mexican "Charro" rodeo,
badly banged and bruised; the big white blind mare who
circles nervously in her so-called protective
enclosure; a rose-grey Arabian with swollen, runny
eyes whose "owner" fell from her and then
branded her wild, dooming her to the kill pen; the
seal-bay thoroughbred filly who walks with an
unacceptable twist of her right rear pastern; the
cancer-afflicted Welsh pony; the unmanageable pinto
stallion who relentlessly expresses his
dissatisfaction over this unusual confinement; they're
all here: the emaciated backyard abuse cases, the
"excess" racing stock, the lame, the
injured, and the ill. Alone, by herself, an appaloosa
mare lies colic-stricken beneath the rain-threatening
sky. She was unloaded here due to an intestinal stone
too painful to pass; if the condition doesn't kill
her, the slaughterman will.
these unfortunate animals are only the exception, not
the rule. Fully trained, young, sound, well-groomed
horses pack the dusty, stench-wreaking pens, competing
with one another for impoverished food and
spy a young dapple-grey Arabian gelding. A long black
forelock falls across his face; the wind picks up his
thick mane and tosses it over an arched neck. He
dances, paws the ground for a moment and then stares
across the roadway to where the mountains meet the
sky. A friend climbs onto the fence beside me.
"Nice horse," she whispers, and I agree. He
epitomizes the spirit of one of the most noble animals
million years ago, horses began their remarkable
evolutionary ascent — but as recently as the Ice
Age, human beings have been preying upon them for
food, forcing wild herds over cliff edges as a means
of slaughter. At the dawn of the New Stone Age — a
mere 6,000 years ago — humans found ways to tame
this flighty beast, raise it, as it were, for food,
hides and then for transportation.
horse had become the most important animal known to
human beings and was believed to be fit for the gods
— so much so that it was sacrificed in religious
ceremonies, enabling believing consumers of its flesh
to acquire its strength. With the advent of
Christianity, however, old religious practices were
discarded and in 732 A.D., Pope Gregory III passed a
papal law forbidding the eating of horses. Before
long, only pagans ate horses; overall, consuming its
flesh had become taboo.
we found other uses for its strength and speed.
World War I, more than one million horses died for the
human cause; in one day alone, 7,000 equines poured
their innocent blood onto the smokey battlefields.
They plowed our fields, transported human belongings
as well as human beings, moved covered wagons and
stagecoaches across the West, provided the Pony
Express and sheriffs' posses, built our cities, and
helped to fight our wars. In short, it was the horse
who raised Western civilization.
the Edinburgh School of Agriculture in
has estimated the
worldwide horse population at more than 65 million, 10
million of whom live in the
. Each year alone,
horse sports draw 110 million spectators; in dollars,
horse care draws: $15 billion; investment and
maintenance: $13 billion; and rodeos: $110 million.
the trade in their flesh is estimated at $150 million.
It is a hidden industry, dating back to age-old
taboos. Even the "Society for the Propagation of
Horse Flesh as an Article of Food" failed to
encourage consumers to develop a taste for horse. This
time, the failure was a result of a 20th century move
toward respect for animal life and a growing worldwide
vegetarian population. Still, the slaughter continues,
supplying the demand for pockets of horse-eaters in
. In the United
States — though legal — the idea of eating horses
is so offensive that killer buyers prefer to be called
"horsetraders," slaughterhouses become
"meat packing plants," and the byproduct of
their industry is hidden in pet food cans and, more
largely — about 90% of it — is shipped abroad
where it remains mostly out of our sight and out of
dapple-grey Arabian steps forward. He is curious about
me and nuzzles my foot. I'm told he's perfectly
trained and has been in the killer pen but a day so he
is still healthy and strong, his spirit unbroken. In
, he'll fetch about
$800 in horse steaks. For $50 more, to encourage the
killer buyer to relinquish him to me instead, I can
take him home.
are now being slaughtered for human consumption as
rapidly as one every two minutes. Prized for being
leaner and healthier than hormone-injected beef or
poultry, more than 65 million pounds of horsemeat were
exported in 1985; three years ago, the figure had more
than doubled; currently, the U.S. ships 125 million
pounds to Europe and Japan — where they are divided
into steaks, sausage and other cuts — making the
U.S. the leading country in the horse flesh trade. The
economy, the horse breeding craze, and the market for
horse flesh, is fast making horses more valuable dead
than alive. At horse and livestock auctions, where
most of these horses are sold, animals are being
bought anywhere from 50¢ to 90¢ per pound; rendering
for pet food only pays about 10¢.
methods for obtaining slaughter-bound horses vary.
There are the auctions where most horse sellers are
assuming they're selling animals to horse lovers —
not horse killers. Unlike other livestock auctions,
not many suspect that the pound on the hoof is the
are killer buyers, like dog and cat USDA "B"
dealers in vivisection circles, who promise a family's
backyard horse a life of leisure on non-existent farms
and coax below-market sales, turning profits by
herding the animals onto double-decked cattle trucks
bound for one of the 11 foreign-owned killing plants
in the U.S.
the secrecy? "It's an industry that involves
killing pets," explains Jim Weems, [former]
Administrative Vice President of Great Western Meat
Co. in Morton,
Hidden Industry," Jane Kelly; Meat & Poultry,
Sept 1991]. "Of course, horsemeat companies are
publicity shy. Our buyers go at these auctions to bid
against people who are interested in buying a pony for
Western Meat Co. sends a special chill along my spine.
Last year, 60,000 horses were trucked to that
slaughterhouse, eight percent of them right here from
— and 60 were
dead on arrival, from who knows what. I stroke the
dapple-grey Arabian's dished face and his ears and
look into his liquid brown eyes as he shoves his head
against me to ask for a scratch. Great Western Meat
Co., I think again. That's exactly where he's headed.
isn't that people haven't tried to protect horses from
slaughter in the
. Try they do.
Still, both federal and state legislation fails.
Horses have not yet been officially classed as either
companion animals or livestock, so, when in doubt,
they fall under guidelines issued by the Department of
Agriculture. But, like most livestock animals in the
, whatever laws
exist governing their protection, they are seldom, if
a sworn statement before
, State of
, a former employee
[name withheld] of Cavel International, a horse
slaughtering plant, testified the following:
July 1991, they were unloading one of the
double-decker trucks. A horse got his leg caught in
the side of the truck so the driver pulled the rig up
and and the horse's leg popped off. The horse was
still living, and it was shaking. [Another employee]
popped it on the head and we hung it up and split it
open. ... Sometimes we would kill near 390, 370 a day.
Each double-decker might have up to 100 on it. We
would pull off the dead ones with chains. Ones that
were down on the truck, we would drag them off with
chains and maybe put them in a pen or we might drag
them with an automatic chain to the knockbox.
Sometimes we would use an electric shocker to try to
make them stand. To get them into the knockbox, you
have to shock them ... sometimes run them up the
[anus] with the shocker. ... When we killed a pregnant
mare, we would take the guts out and I would take the
bag out and open it and cut the cord and put it in the
trash and sometimes the baby would still be living,
and its heart would be beating, but we would put it in
horse industry is accountable for these
atrocities," says Linda Moss, co-founder of Equus
Horse Rescue organization. "But to stop the
slaughter, we need to change the nature of our
industry. Breeders are going to have to cut back.
Trainers won't be able to unload horses they've
wrecked. If we're going to race horses, we should have
more races for slower and older horses. You can't just
throw away these animals; you have to find the right
place for them to be" [Ride! Magazine].
is turning to dusk and an almost cold wind picks up. I
leave the kill pen for the car, hoping to find a
sweater or jacket into which I'll crawl. Along the
way, I pass the kill buyer. He's leaning in the barn's
breezeway, on a payphone, and he smiles a little at me
as I walk by. Despite his friendliness, I can tell, by
the tone in his voice, that he is irritated.
"This isn't right," he keeps saying into the
receiver. Seems cattle are more on the move this week
and he's having a great deal of trouble finding a
truck for this week's load of horses. He can't keep
the horses here for long; they're costing him to feed
and he has more than enough for one more truckload
this month. "This isn't right," I hear him
say again, and I can't help but agree with him —
from a slightly different perspective.
I find the irony. He's merely the middleman. He is not
the enemy. The enemy is the bigger picture: the
breeders of horses, the people who acquire them and
then abandon them to any fate.
pull the collar around me, lean onto the fence again
to watch the dapple-grey Arabian. He sees me and
shifts his weight; I know he's going to turn in my
direction now, to approach and stand by me, perhaps in
his horsey way, to ask me to free him.
scratch his neck and he loves it, but in the middle of
our momentary liberation from the doom around us,
headlights shatter the encroaching darkness. I turn my
head and watch the truck make its slow journey across
the pot-holed dirt driveway. It is coming for him.
There are tiny lights along every edge of the trailer,
and it is lit up like a Christmas tree. It is empty
now, too, but it is a different kind of truck. There
is ample room for horses in it, partitioned stalls
that separate the animals from each other to prevent
injury; there are padded walls and rubber mats on the
floors; there is hay and sweet grain in the feed
truck stops and Linda Moss gets out. "Is he
ready?" she asks. I scratch the dapple-grey
Arabian one more time and feel my heart warm.
"He's come to the gate," I said. "I
think he's ready."
was the big, white blind mare. And two of the Charros'
"toys." Then we squeezed in an Arabian filly
just for good measure.
was nightfall when we arrived at the temporary
sanctuary (we're looking for something permanent).
Barn lights shattered the darkness, horses whinnied a
welcome, and a volunteer crew emerged to help unload
is a wonderful feeling, a feeling beyond words, to
actually remove other living beings from the jaws of
death, and — in this case — to prepare them a room
of their own with fresh water and alfalfa hay, wood
shavings for bedding, and a bucket of sweet grain.
is a wonderful feeling for the horses, too. The
dapple-grey Arabian called to me when I left the barn
to observe the outside activities. He knew so soon
that I had come to save him. He KNEW it — even
before I did, I think. I named him "Shilo"
after Neil Diamond's song, the one he wrote about his
only dependable friend.
thought about my brand new friendship with Shilo —
that rare kind of bonding you have only with an animal
— as I leaned in the barn's doorway and watched him
grab a bite of alfalfa and molasses then check to see
if I was still there. Outside in the lit night, the
irony of it all had shadowed us. It is all we can
afford: The Equus Horse Rescue Sanctuary is shared by
a group of Charro cowboys.
drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and sit on the fence;
they train their rodeo horses in the arena and
practice their lassoing techniques. If the cowboys are
at all amused or annoyed with us, it's hard to tell.
They feed carrots to the wounded ponies who had once
been chased and injured in one of their rodeos; they
offer to hold a filly for a volunteer while she
medicates her; they unload a bag of grain from the
truck bed for us.
do not understand the human race ... and for now that
would have to suffice; inside the barn, bedded and fed
and groomed, a dozen horses prepare for a long and
enriched life that only a few hours earlier had been
doomed to the slaughterhouse. For a few, it would be a
Moretti is the founder and editor of this web site.