A Primer on Horse Slaughter (B)

A few notes before we continue.  Evelyne Villers, horsewoman and Editor-in-Chief of Les Hebdos du Suroît which produces a number of local papers widely read throughout the Vaudreuil-Soulanges riding where I live, wrote an excellent piece on Horse Euthanasia in January 2010.  For those of you who read French, go to Blogue Equin on the Premiere Edition website, and enjoy Evelyne’s comprehensive take on life with horses from natural horse training to events coverage and horse health and husbandry.  I admit it:  I’m a Villers groupie partly because her articles are extremely well-balanced regardless of her personal view of horses, which really is what a good reporter does:  presents the facts without interjecting one’s own opinions.  Very few reporters remain out there in media land of such professional calibre.

It’s because of something I read in that article, almost two years ago, that Q&A, Part B, begins with the fallout in the US after horse slaughter was banned on US soil (now be careful:  there’s a big difference between rumour and fact.  I’ll get to that shortly).  In Evelyne’s article, she quotes two people who should know better (and I’m fairly certain that one of the two definitely knows better):  one a cowboy from Montana, John Chaffee, who regularly transports horses to slaughter in both Canada and Mexico, and the second, a local veterinarian, Gilbert Hallé.  Chaffee states (my translation):  “The animal activists who had the abattoirs shut down should see what happens to the horses dying of hunger in their own backyard…then they’d see the absurdity of their own position.”  Well, John, I can’t see how’d you know about all those starving horses if you spent so much time on the road…I’m just say’n.

Dr. Hallé, on the other hand, really surprised me when he told Evelyne, that, in his opinion, the Americans should have kept their abattoirs running.  He feared that US horses suffered in the trucks as they were being transported onto our soil, and that, in effect, horse transport was all too often inadequate.  On the other hand, he continued, horsemeat was a significant protein source and for humanitarian reasons, we could keep abattoirs running as one solution to world hunger.”  Huh?  Honestly, my comprehension of written French is almost 100 per cent but I had to read that three times–most likely because a VETERINARIAN was being quoted (see Part A, “why horsemeat is toxic for human consumption”).  Sigh.

Let’s continue on our quest for truth beyond mendacity, beyond ignorance, beyond propaganda.

PART B:

I heard that when horse slaughter was banned in the US, hundreds of thousands of horses were abandoned to starve and die terrible deaths by the roadsides.  Isn’t that a good reason to keep our abattoirs running?

I don’t really understand the question because slaughter is for food production (and we’ve established that horsemeat cannot be safely eaten) so slaughter cannot be a remedy for horse abandonment.  Still, let’s address the question anyway.  I must say that I can neither corroborate nor dismiss out of hand the figure of  “hundreds of thousands” (nor can anyone else)…so let’s do the math.  If  “hundreds of thousands” of horses died by the roadside, that would mean, say, 200,000 or even 300,000 (just pulling figures out of a hat for the sake of argument here) and, if we apportion horses by state (51 states, as far as I know), it would mean (based on 300,000 horses abandoned) that a total of nearly 6,000 dead or dying horses would be littering highways and byways in every state in the US.  Hmm.  It seems to me that a situation like that would have caused a national crisis, somewhat akin to mad cow disease or maybe, rampant rabies in the Dark Ages.  We do know that a US report from the GAO (Government Accountability Office) stated that such a figure could not be verified and had been wholly based on the conjecture of pro-slaughter activists.

News agencies did report cases in the US of horses left to languish and die by the roadside.  Those cases were reported because they were sensational news stories, or news-worthy, as my journalist friend would say.  If a story is sensational, it is out-of-the-ordinary; extraordinary hence newsworthy; newsworthy because sensational…I think you get the point.  So let’s look at the reasons these exceptional cases were reported, when they were reported, and how they coincide (or don’t coincide) with the closing of all horse abattoirs in the US.  Like orange hair on a crowded subway, something sticks out right away:  the economy.  The last US abattoir closed in 2007; in September of 2008, the US economy tailspinned downwards in ways not seen since the Great Depression.

Americans lost their savings, their homes, their RRSPs (retirement savings)…and their farms full of livestock, including horses, legally considered livestock (although, to be honest, I’ve never seen sheep compete in the Olympics…but anyway).  And most of these tragic financial repercussions entered the public consciousness in late 2008 and early 2009.  Since I have never interviewed or met anyone who would abandon a horse rather than try to sell it, privately or publicly at auction (and we talked about the complicity between auctioneers and killbuyers in an earlier question; see Part A, Q #1…wait, I’m not finished yet) or apply to the many animal shelters available in the US (and there are hundreds), just as I have never met anyone who would jump in his car with his dog, then drive him to the nearest remote field and dump him there while he drives off, I am left to imagine what those horse owners were thinking (not much different from the young mother who left her newborn baby in a Walmart restroom, I would think).  Clearly, I have to get out more.

But before I share my best guesses as to these abandoners’ motives, let’s talk about the specious arguments out there which use the apparent coincidence of horse abandonment with the closing of the US abattoirs to justify (a) why horse abattoirs should be re-instated in the US; and (b) why it is better to abandon your horse to die from starvation rather than send him off to a foreign abattoir (because, after all, depending on what condition he’s in, you could make anywhere from 15 to 40 cents per pound…not a paltry sum by any means considering the weight of a horse, even a starved one.  Or, even better, bypass the middleman KB (kill-buyer), and DIY like the Oregon couple did).

Regarding (a), as mentioned earlier, slaughter is for food production; horsemeat is not safe to eat therefore horse slaughter is not relevant to the phenomenon of horse abandonment (although horse euthanasia may be: we’ll see). Horsemeat, like cocaine or prostitution, is based on demand.  Supply-and-demand is the mantra of any good business.  The number of horses slaughtered will be in proportion to the demand for horsemeat…no more, no less.  And, remember, the demand comes from foreign countries, not the US, and from Canada where only Quebec is known to harbour consumers of horsemeat; we have our own horses here to consume so we here in Quebec don’t need the US horses except for the export monies their horsemeat brings us.  According to Viandes Richelieu which owns the Massueville, QC, abattoir, 30 per cent of the horsemeat they render, prepare and package is sold in Quebec.  (That was a hard thing to say out loud.)  According also to a 2006 study by MAPAQ (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Production of Quebec), old taboos about eating horses diminished as the Quebec public, panicked by mad cow disease and high cholesterol worries, was told that horsemeat was leaner and rich in iron; in short, a much healthier meat choice than beef (ref Evelyne Villers’ article, The Fate of Horses during the Economic Crisis, in Premiere Edition, January 25, 2010).  MAPAQ apparently didn’t see fit to mention that it may be leaner but it also contained toxins like bute and the sampling amounts taken by the CFIA over a five-year period are so minuscule as to be useless wastes of time (which doesn’t matter anyway because we know that NO amount of bute is safe for human consumption).

Regarding (b), those who abandoned their horses on the nearest highway:  perhaps they knew something about what went on in the horse-transport-to-foreign-slaughterhouse industry that made them think abandonment was preferable.  This may be one of those cases in which jingoism actually appears to reduce the harm in a lesser-of-two-evils kind of way.  Even now, the pro-slaughter activists decry the heinous excesses at Mexican and Canadian abattoirs, claiming that it could be done much better in US abattoirs.  I don’t know.  An abattoir is an abattoir, and the reason the US government banned horse slaughter in the first place was because both horse transport and horse slaughter methods were found to be devastatingly inhumane.  But ultimately, it’s all ‘six of one, half-dozen of the other’ because whether you abandon your horse or send him to slaughter, you have relinquished in a most craven way your responsibility as his guardian, owner, handler, etc.

What it comes down to is that people are more likely to abandon high-maintenance animals during economic downturns than for any other reason–and apparently, that’s been part of the industry for a very long time.  Just yesterday, the Horse Humane Plus Society in northern California wrote:

We really appreciate the feed company for keeping the price as low as they can, but it seems that feed prices everywhere have skyrocketed this fall.  The price of feed this winter we fear will literally kill thousands of horses.  Hay, which we have never seen go above $15 a bale locally even in the worst of winters, is now $16 a bale, when usually it is about $9 a bale.  There comes a point in late winter, early spring right before they start cutting when hay gets extremely expensive.  We cannot imagine what will happen but we imagine that our SAFE Surrender Site and Euthanasia Clinic will be bursting at the seams.  The killer buyers will be swooping up everyone they can to send to slaughter.  [Horse Humane Plus Society, Oroville, CA, 11-13-11 newsletter]

Also, back home here in Quebec, a Quebec horsewoman who moved to Alberta and opened a horse rescue had this to say during an interview:

Hundreds of horses go the meat market at the auctions each week, and it’s always worse in October because a lot of people don’t want to feed their horses through the winter. It’s also the time when foals are separated from their mothers because people don’t want to feed them for the winter. [my translation.  www.letraitdunion.com.  Jean-Guy Ladouceur, September 2011]

And this is the testimonial I find most supportive of the position that it was the economy that caused the abandonment of US horses, not the closing of their abattoirs:

Andrew Welden, manager of the Lachute horse auctions, stated that, since the beginning of 2009, many fewer horses went to slaughter: horsemeat prices were very low…[yet] the number of horses sent to auction went up in 2009.  In effect, the economic crisis forced many Americans to give up their horses.  [my translation.  Evelyne Villers, Premiere Edition, January 25, 2010]

So, in general, we can say that there is no relationship between restoring horse slaughter and abattoirs in the US, and the phenomenon of horse abandonment, and further, that, all things being equal, horse abandonment is much more likely linked to poor financial planning, unexpected economic reversals, and perhaps a callous mindset which consistently dumps one’s own responsibilities into someone else’s lap (or onto someone else’s highway).

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