Slaughter of horses in U.S. could resume, in Missouri

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.
— The lunge whips, the saddles and the bridles are auctioned first.
Then the horses are ridden into a small pen, under the glare of
overhead lights: A black quarter horse. A gray Missouri fox trotter. A worn, 15-year-old chestnut gelding at the end of his better years.

Buyers and curious onlookers, out for a Friday
night, are packed into the stadium seats, a sprawling crowd in dun,
denim and worn black, the dusty palette of western ranching. The
auctioneer’s call rolls and bobs, stopping occasionally.

Come on, he says, this is a really nice little horse.

But the bids aren’t climbing. Of the 140 horses sold, the biggest fetch of the night is a paint mare for $1,100, half the amount the horse would have gotten a few years ago.

By midnight, the audience at the Springfield
Livestock Marketing Center has thinned out, because no one really wants
to watch what’s coming. “Kill buyers” have waited around for the
“loose” horses — the horses owners have decided are not worth training
or have reached the end of their useful lives. They are herded into the
ring without riders, some of them with bones poking through their
winter coats, others shiny and fat. By 1:30 a.m., these buyers have placed their bids — in some cases, as low as $30 or $40 — and, they load the 40 horses into trailers and haul them off for slaughter in Mexico and Canada.

If one Missouri state lawmaker has his way, though, the final destinations of horses like these will be much closer.

Earlier this year, Missouri Republican state Rep. Jim Viebrock,
introduced a bill designed to circumvent federal rules that prevent
horse slaughter for human consumption and will enable horse processing
facilities to open in Missouri.
Viebrock says the legislation would jump-start the ailing equine
industry, which pro-slaughter advocates say has been hurt by the recent
closure of the country’s three horse slaughterhouses.

Viebrock’s bill, which has sparked outrage in anti-slaughter circles, has the support of the state’s director of agriculture, Jon Hagler, and just about every person at the Springfield auction on this recent Friday night.

Cathy Gripka came to the auction to find a horse or
two. Gripka owns a dozen horses at any given time, often saving them
from slaughter and keeping them on her farm in Pierce City.
But she hopes Viebrock’s bill succeeds, because, like many horse
lovers, she links the absence of slaughterhouses with a rise in horse
abuse and neglect.

On a platform overlooking a corral holding
wretched-looking, rail-thin horses, Gripka drags on a cigarette. “This
is what happens when you don’t have slaughterhouses,” she says. “I’d
rather see these horses feed somebody than get in this kind of shape.”

In 2007, the last U.S. horse slaughter facility, in DeKalb, Ill., closed after the Illinois Legislature
passed a law banning horse slaughter for human consumption. A federal
appropriations change, enacted in 2005, also said no federal funds
could be used for horse slaughter inspections, in effect banning
interstate shipment of slaughter horses and preventing any facilities
from reopening.

Since the closure, American kill buyers have instead sent horses to Mexico and Canada,
where European-owned processing facilities fulfill steady demand from
European and Japanese markets, and where horse meat retails for $10 a pound or more.

Viebrock hopes his bill will restart the industry on American soil, specifically to Missouri, where horse slaughtering has not taken place in decades.

The aim is to provide a funding mechanism that would reimburse the U.S. Department of Agriculture
for the required inspections. But, federal authorities say, it remains
unclear whether the law would work, because the federal rule mandates
no money be spent on the federal inspections, whether reimbursed or not.

“In theory, you could have a state facility,” said Caleb Weaver, a department spokesman. “But you can only ship in the state and couldn’t cross borders to go elsewhere.”

Still, Viebrock and his supporters are optimistic. They say it will come down to how the law is interpreted.

“There are a lot of folks around who would like it to go forward,” Hagler said.

The influence of the closures on the horse industry
is heavily debated. Slaughter advocates say since slaughterhouses have
closed, the number of unwanted and neglected horses has shot up. In
contrast, Anti-slaughter groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, cites the recession as the dominant factor.

Meanwhile, each side blames the other for the
growing cases of horse neglect, even as they debate whether the number
of excess horses is growing at all.

A report by the Unwanted Horse Coalition
revealed that, of the 27,000 horse owners and industry stakeholders
surveyed, 90 percent believe the number of unwanted horses is rising.

“If you look at what’s been happening since these facilities have closed, it’s really telling,” said Mark Lutschaunig, of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

But the Humane Society of Missouri has
not seen a surge in unwanted horses. In fact, equine experts, including
Lutschaunig, acknowledge there is no real way of knowing the exact rise
in the number of abandoned horses, or whether the situation is a
product of the absence of slaughterhouses.

Any increase could likely be the consequence of the
larger economic picture. With the rising cost of feed and money
stretched thin, many owners are trying to sell their horses, and after
failing to find buyers in a flooded market, abandoning the horses or
giving them to rescue groups.

Horse traders say opening up slaughterhouses will
cure the unwanted horse problem — and boost the struggling equine
industry at the same time.

“Having just one or two plants, that would bring up
the competitive market for horses that have no occupational value,”
said one Missouri kill buyer, who asked not to be identified. “It would at least give us a base price to help.”

The thinking, at least at the Missouri auctions, is the entire industry is suffering because there is no market for horse meat.

“These horses are old, they’re crippled. Even they used to bring 60 to 70 cents per pound; now it’s 15 and 20,” said Dwight Glossip, who runs the horse auction in Springfield. “That’s what sends down the market on riding horses.”

Anti-slaughter advocates don’t buy that logic.

“The reason the horses aren’t getting any money is because there is no money, slaughter or no slaughter,” said Alex Brown, a Pennsylvania-based
exercise jockey who runs one of the country’s biggest anti-slaughter
campaigns. “Slaughter hasn’t gone away, so to say that bringing it back
here is going to affect the market makes no sense.”

Brown pointed to federal figures that show the
number of horses being slaughtered in the U.S. before the plant
closures — roughly 100,000 — is about the same as the number being
shipped to Canada and Mexico.

“The pro-slaughter hypothesis is driven largely by
the agendas of those who absolutely support slaughter…,” Brown said.
“They do a very good job of tying the abuse and neglect of horses to
the end of domestic slaughter.”

Putting their economic arguments aside,
pro-slaughter advocates say closing slaughterhouses in the country not
only has pushed the trade over the border, but caused more horses to
suffer.

“It’s put horses in a far less humane condition,” Hagler said. “It’s far more humane to have horses harvested in the United States … than it is to ship them into another country.”

There have been dozens of documented cases of
neglect and abuse in horse trailers, where horses were packed in for
long distances for shipment to Mexico and Canada, while conditions in some slaughterhouses, particularly in Mexico, are grim, both sides admit.

Pro-slaughter advocates say that provides an argument for bringing horse slaughter back to the United States,
where it can be better regulated, while anti-slaughter advocates say
reports of inhumane transportation and slaughter are good reason to
stop shipping horses for slaughter altogether.

Leslie Maxwell runs a horse rescue farm in Walnut Grove, Mo., and recently launched the NoMoHorseslaughter coalition in response to Viebrock’s bill.

She and other anti-slaughter advocates say the
problem lies with reckless breeders and with owners who don’t
understand the demands of ownership, including the cost of euthanasia
or burial.

“A lot of backyard breeders have run the industry
down,” Maxwell said. “It’s irresponsible breeders, not the slaughter
industry being gone.”

Brown and others point out horses are not bred for
food, and most performance horses are given substances Canadian and
European regulatory agencies have banned, or plan to ban, from their
food systems.

“The reason the cow is alive is because we want to
eat it. The reason the horse is alive is because we want it to win the
Kentucky Derby. That’s very different,” Brown said.

The anti-slaughter movement is backing federal
legislation that will ban the shipment of horse meat for human
consumption altogether, which would end the trade of American horse
meat.

That, they say, would be the ultimate solution.

“We need euthanasia programs,” Brown said.
“Obviously we need more responsible ownership, and we’re only going to
get that if we stop slaughter.

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