U.S. ban on horse slaughter means a more gruesome death elsewhere

U.S. ban on horse slaughter means a more gruesome death elsewhere
Rising numbers of the animals face primitive end at foreign plants


By LISA SANDBERG
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau


RESOURCES
Slideshow: Scent of Death (contains graphic images) CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO ? The American mare swung her head frantically when the door to the kill box shut, trapping her inside. A worker jabbed her in the back with a small knife seven, eight, nine times.

Eyes wild, she lowered her head and raised it as the blade punctured her body around the withers, again and again.

At the 10th jab, she fell to the floor of this Mexican slaughterhouse, bloodied and paralyzed but not yet dead.

She would lie there two minutes before being hoisted upside down from a chained rear leg so her throat could be slit and she could bleed to death.

The primitive procedure at the Ciudad Juarez plant is now the fate of thousands of exported U.S. horses since court rulings have shut horse slaughter operations in the United States.

The roan mare was one of nearly 30,000 American horses shipped to Mexican processing plants this year, a 370 percent increase from the number recorded this time last year.

By the time she and her peers were led into this city-owned plant, they had typically traveled in packed trucks 700 miles or more, say the American traders who ship them.

Some arrive dead. Many of the others come in "fractured, battered and bruised," said Jose Cuellar, the plant veterinarian.

No one disputes that slaughter-bound horses have it far worse today than before U.S. courts, upholding state bans, closed two plants to horse slaughtering in Texas earlier this year and the nation's single remaining one in Illinois on Sept. 21.

Animal welfare advocates who lobbied to end horse slaughter in the United States gambled that Congress would pass legislation by next year barring horses from being exported for slaughter and preventing horse slaughter plants from opening in states that don't have bans. But the fate of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act is uncertain.

"I think (the odds of the ban passing are) 50-50 this session," said U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky, a leading opponent of horse slaughter who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. HR 503 passed the House last year, but a companion bill died in the Senate. The legislation reintroduced this year is pending.


The mythic creature
John Holland, a horse slaughter opponent from Virginia, likens the fight to warfare: attack the industry from all sides and deprive it of profits, while pressing Congress for a federal law banning horse exports. "The federal ban is the name of the game and everybody in the anti-slaughter community knows it," he said.

More than 100,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered last year for foreign dinner plates, according to government figures. There have been 15,000 fewer American horses slaughtered this year since the U.S. operations closed compared with this time last year, even counting the jump in the number being shipped to Mexico and Canada, Holland said.

"It made it better for (15,000) horses who are not being slaughtered, but it made it worse for those who are. No doubt about it," Holland said. "If you told me we'd never get the federal ban, would I have worked hard to get the plants shut while horses are exported? No."

Lower in fat than beef and sweeter, horsemeat is considered a delicacy in places such as France, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Russia.

Laurent Mailhet, a third-generation butcher from the town of Lunel, in the south of France, says horsemeat is tastier than beef, and for good reason.

"The horse is an animal that selects its food," avoiding certain grasses. Cattle, he said, are less discriminating.

But in Mexico, horsemeat is perceived as inferior to beef, selling for about 30 percent less, and it's sometimes sold as beef to unsuspecting customers.

It never gained much of a U.S. following, even though it's legal to consume in states other than Texas, California, Oklahoma and Illinois.

Opponents argue that domestic horses shouldn't be used to satisfy foreign palates and that the slaughtering process was cruel in the U.S. and is worse in Mexico. Horses played a special role in U.S. history, they say, helping conquer the West, providing the sinews of early commerce and serving as majestic friends, not food.

"Horses have helped us settle this country, they've been our primary means of transportation, they've served us in battle and carried our mail, entertained us and been our companions. They've been so much to us, but the one thing they haven't been is dinner," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

Though millions of cats and dogs wind up euthanized in animal shelters each year, Markarian notes, "the answer has never been to send them for slaughter to countries where they would be considered food animals."

Proponents of horse slaughter say they, too, have horses' best interests at heart. Banning it, they say, will result each year in the abandonment of tens of thousands of unwanted horses.


The salvage market
To avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse, a horse needs to carry itself well at auction. Paraded into the sale yard before a crowd, horses have about a minute to demonstrate that they're broken in, tame, physically fit, not too old.

Traders known as "killer buyers" flock to auction houses, such as the monthly horse sale in Stephenville, scooping up horses and ponies that are crippled, blind, don't ride well or are just plain unwanted. The traders stand inside the sale yard, surveying each animal, ready to bid as little as $60 for a so-called salvage market horse.

Mike McBarron is one of about a dozen such buyers in Texas. Fifteen of the 21 horses he snapped up in Stephenville the first Friday of September failed to convince him they had some quality more valuable than the 20 cents to 30 cents a pound they would command at slaughter.

"Every one of them is either cripple or crazy or don't ride at all," McBarron said, surveying his latest acquisition of mostly thoroughbreds.

McBarron, 36, who's been trading horses since he dropped out of ninth grade and makes more money selling saddle horses not bound for slaughter, knows he's got no celebrities rooting for him, no Bo Dereks or Willie Nelsons writing letters to Congress on his behalf. (Both are in the opposing camp).

He knows many feel contempt for traders who can flip a horse without giving it much more than a glance, who can assess truckloads of sentimental creatures in dollars and cents.

But McBarron insists he's providing a kind of service, saving unwanted horses from abandonment and providing instant payment to an owner who might otherwise have to shell out a couple of hundred dollars to have it euthanized by a veterinarian and buried.

"I promise you, if there was anybody in America other than the packinghouses that wanted to buy him, I'd gladly sell 'em," McBarron said.

The closure of the Texas plants has hit killer buyers hard. McBarron, who lives in the North Texas town of Kaufman, site of one of the closed plants, said it now costs him about $100 to send each horse to Mexico, leaving his profit between $20 to $50 per horse.

Animal welfare advocates take issue with the argument that owners would abandon horses if they could not sell them for slaughter. They say killer buyers often outbid others to buy horses that might otherwise end up on someone's ranch.

"They create a market," Holland said.

Markarian said horse slaughter peaked in the 1980s, when as many as 350,000 horses were killed annually for their meat. The gradual closure of plants didn't lead to thousands of horses running wild or dying in their pastures, he said.


The killing floor
Under the metal roof in Stephenville, in the warm air long after midnight, time was running out for McBarron's newly purchased herd.

At 10 the next morning, they would be put in a cattle truck and shipped 565 miles to El Paso. Transferred to another truck for a short haul across the border, they would then be put on a Mexican truck where they become Mexican horses and subject to Mexico's regulations, said one U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

Perhaps they'd stay in Juarez, perhaps they'd be shipped to one of two large plants in the city of Zacatecas, 700 or so miles to the south, or another plant.

About a quarter of the nearly 400 horses auctioned at Stephenville this month were sold for slaughter. Some might have once won a few ribbons and been somebody's pet; others may have spent their lives tied to a tree and cropping grass. Histories are difficult to come by at auctions. But when the trucks arrived, they would all share the same fate.

Not all horses screech while being stabbed in the back. But horses tend to stir, making the task of killing them a challenge.

The Juarez plant has a couple of captive bolt guns, but they're inoperable about half the time. And when they do work, poor training can make their use almost as chaotic as the knives, said Cuellar, the plant's vet.

The knife wielders have to be nimble, with good aim, if they want to sever the spinal cord with a single blow. The man on duty one recent day had atrocious aim, with horses enduring as many as 13 jabs to the back before collapsing.

The brutality left the plant's director, Luis Terrazas Mu?oz, apologetic. "It's like watching someone with an ice pick," he observed. But he said he can't shut the plant down just because the guns aren't working.

Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has researched ways to reduce stress on slaughter animals and designed the facilities where about half the cattle are handled at U.S. plants, called the "puntilla" technique employed in Mexico "horrific beyond belief" and "one of the absolute worst ways to kill an animal."

Repeated jabs to the spinal cord, she said, would not kill the horse, at least not right away. Jabs to the spinal cord would just render it a quadriplegic. A clean jab to the spinal cord, which is difficult to do, would dull sensation in the body but not in the head.

Once a horse collapses, it's left on its own for two minutes. Then a worker attaches a chain to one of its hind legs. Slowly, it's hoisted. Then its throat is slit.

"The horse would likely experience being hoisted up, and it's probably going to experience being bled. It would likely experience 30 seconds to a minute of absolute terror," Grandin said.

The ones that die on the way to the plant are thrown out with the unused body parts of the other horses. In the U.S., a wounded or sick horse would likely have been put down by a plant vet. But at the Juarez plant, sick horses are taken to the front of the line ? or dragged ? and slaughtered. Whether their meat is used is determined by the vet.

The puntilla method is used in older slaughterhouses throughout Mexico, said Terrazas. Newer plants are supposed to use captive bolt guns, but he was not sure if they are doing so.

Europe bars the importation of meat from animals that have not been stunned prior to being bled. The European Convention also says large animals cannot be suspended or constrained before being stunned. The two plants in Zacatecas serve the European Union, and much of the rest of the horsemeat is consumed in Mexico.


The U.S. method

Horses were slaughtered at U.S. plants with a strike to the forehead from captive bolt guns. Grandin maintains that death came quickly and painlessly. Some animal welfare advocates disagree, saying a horse's quick movements and narrow forehead left some having to be hit multiple times before their brains were shattered.

In Canada, horses at two large plants, in Quebec and Alberta, are killed with a shot to the head with a .22, said the plants' owner, Claude Bouvry.

More than 18,000 horses have been exported to Canada so far this year, a 26 percent rise over last year's USDA figures. Those numbers are likely to grow, given the ruling last week by a federal appeals court ordering the closure of the horse slaughter operation in Illinois.

For the time being, American horses will continue to be shipped by American traders to foreign-owned plants and butchered. Their meat will continue to make its way into small shops such as Dennise Reta's El Lucero in downtown Juarez, where customers can buy cutlets, steaks and ground meat.

And activists will continue to pressure Congress to protect American horses from this fate.

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Tags: horse, slaughter

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