Now that horses can no longer be slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S., the horse industry is feeling the effects: experts point to a drop in the market, welfare groups are finding homes for more unwanted horses, but thousands more are heading for slaughter plants across the border.
Blowback from the U.S. horse slaughter industry's partial demise, says Ray Field, is flowing up the drive of his modest adoption operation, the Wild Horse Foundation, located just off a rural road in Central Texas.
While established to relocate feral horses born on federal lands, the foundation has been getting calls from sheriff's departments and individuals about abandoned and abused animals, says Field, its executive director and a burly man who describes himself as being caught in an increasingly frustrating tangle.
Field figures that 30,000 of the 100,000 horses that otherwise would have been trucked off by kill buyers would likely stay with their current owners. But the remainder will need refuge, he predicts, and he doesn't see enough open-armed people or sufficient funds materializing to meet the need.
"The welfare groups are saying the horses are going to be absorbed," Field says. "But Western states are bursting at their seams and can't take any more, so they'll have to be moved east. Will there be people to take them?"
Field rattles off the names of non-profit organizations that, he asserts, gained notoriety and raised hefty donations during the anti-slaughter campaign, but that now provide scant support for maintaining unwanted horses saved from European stew pots.
His foundation forked out $360,000 last year to transport and care for horses before finding them welcoming paddocks around the country. Field says that two-thirds of the money came from his own pocket.
When both sides of the slaughter issue were trying to influence Congress, the packing industry drew a picture of tens of thousands of horses starving by the roadside.
Animal welfare groups dismissed those dire predictions, insisting that enough generous Americans would come forth to underwrite the $750 to $1,000 needed annually to support a horse, or that owners would unhesitatingly hand over several hundred dollars to have a sickly animal euthanized and its carcass hauled off.
Either outcome was put off last year when the three foreign-owned slaughter plants in operation in this country side-stepped a new federal law that stripped funding for USDA inspections by covering the cost themselves, using a so-called fee-for-service rule.
Then, in January, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Texas law banning horse slaughter for human consumption. This forced Dutch-owned Beltex in Fort Worth to close down processing operations entirely, and Belgian-operated Dallas Crown in nearby Kaufman to begin slaughtering for non-human consumption only, supplying the much smaller zoo market.
The nation's third plant, Cavel International of DeKalb, Illinois, operated several months longer under a temporary court order after Illinois passed a ban. Governor Rod Blagojevich finally signed the law banning horse slaughter for human consumption on May 24, although, under a temporary restraining order, the plant continued to slaughter a limited number of horses through the month of June.
Three days earlier, the Texas legislature let die a bill that would have again made slaughter legal. On May 22, the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to seal the two Texas plants' fate when it refused to hear their petition to overturn a federal appeals court ruling that upheld a state law against horse slaughter.
For more of this story, see the August 2007 issue of Western Horseman.