Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Slaughter Debate

Sorry this blog took so long - I just really have been absolutely swamped and these blogs take more than 5 minutes to type up!

To start, I highly suggest that anyone interested in unbiased articles concerning horse slaughter should check out Horse and Rider issues Oct 07 and Nov 07, where both sides of the story are covered very well.

The key players on both sides? Pushing for the ban on horse slaughter, we have:
The Humane Society of the United States
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (oy!)

A couple of the primary "pro slaughter" advocates are:
Arabian Horse Association
American Quarter Horse Association
American Veterinary Medical Associaion (click here for their slaughter FAQ page)

My personal opinion is that slaughter is a 'necessary evil'. Let me make it clear: our own horses are our partners, and we hope to always be able to provide for them, for life. We raised or purchased them with that intent, and thus far our oldest gelding is 14 and our youngest is 5, though my own family has kept horses until they were at an age where they had to be euthanized. I anticipate we will purchase many more horses in the future - some whom we will keep for life, others whom we likely will not. Any horses that we sell in the future we will certainly do our best to ensure they do not meet their end at slaughter through correct training, responsible breeding, and by doing our best to choose the right home. Our own personal horses will never meet a slaughter facility - they are our partners and we could never bear to see them slaughtered. On the other hand, the reality of the matter is that we have a surplus of horses as well as horses who cannot work and for whom we have no homes, and there is a demand overseas for horsemeat. If we can eat cows, pigs, chickens, or sheep, why not horses? Cannot one form the same type of relationship with a heifer/steer or a ewe/ram that they could a mare? I know I certainly have. Perhaps it is time we accepted that societies in other parts of the world do eat horse meat, and do our best to regulate the industry to ensure the humane treatment of our equines. So here is a quick look at the facts:

I am unsure as to all the North American rules and regulations that pertain to hauling horses, however I am under the understanding (click here) that horses hauled in the US (Canada?) are not permitted to be hauled in double-deckers - provided the hauler commercially hauls over 20 horses per year destined for slaughter. But who's to say the horses are headed for slaughter? Sounds like a loophole to me. With the current US slaughter bans in practice, individuals are now forced to haul their horses destined to slaughter longer distances. This means they need more horses per load so as to make the load worthwhile financially = double-deckers. Personally I have yet to see a double-decker on the Alberta highways filled with horses (not to say there aren't though), however I have seen numerous single-deck trailers chock-full of horses whom I can only assume were likely destined for slaughter. Could the transport of horses be more strictly regulated in North America? Certainly. However that was a fact both prior to and now during the slaughter ban; in fact, laws and regulations pertaining to the slaughter of horses are even more important now, when so many more horses are being transported longer distances than they were prior to the ban.

The method
Under North American law and regulations, horses are to be rendered dead via a captive bolt or a gunshot to the head. The AVMA considers this to be as humane as chemical euthanasia (an OD on barbiturates). If anyone has ever seen a chemically euthanized animal, it is not always pretty; people seem to have this assumption that the animal just fades off into a blissful sleep. Well, that is not always the case. They can scream loudly (I have personally seen it) and a 1,200lb horse is going to fall - hard. Then there's the matter of disposing of the carcass. If all "unwanted" horses were euthanized by chemical means (as per the HSUS), we would be looking at the disposal of approximately 100,000 horses. In the US alone. Canada contributes another approximate 50,000 to that number. The chemicals used for a euthanasia solution are highly dangerous to the environment. Not only can they poison predatory animals, but 150,000 buried carcasses leaking barbiturates into the ground is not the most brilliant proposal either. Burning them only releases the chemicals into the air. Not to mention that we are wasting the carcass of an animal, which especially irks me. If an animal is to be subject to humane euthanasia, why not make use of the animal rather than allow for waste? Just a couple of other parts of the equine carcass that may be used (in addition to its meat for human or zoo animal consumption): the pericardium of a horse's heart and the pancreas (used to obtain insulin). If others in this world eat the meat, why force our personal opinions on them? Some view the consumption of cattle as unholy, yet our society continues to purchase steaks. What makes our viewpoints any more important than theirs? Not to mention that horse meat is highly efficient and healthier than beef.

As far as the captive bolt or a gunshot, reports (such as the one done by Dr. Temple Grandin, the world's leading researcher in the area of humane slaughter techniques - featured in the Oct 07 issue of Horse & Rider) show that effectiveness (that the person operating kills the horse on the first shot) is at 95 percent. This renders the horse brain-dead and unable to feel or think anything immediately. A horse can still be dead and kicking, but this is due to the reciprocal circuit in the spine being effected, not due to the horse remaining alive and kicking. The horse is then bled out once already dead.

Is there room for improvement in the process? Certainly. Here is one investigation done by CBC that showcases an unethical Canadian slaughterhouse attempting to slaughter horses in a facility constructed for cattle. Here is the accompanying video, that was broadcasted on CBC television originally. Horses cannot be slaughtered in facilities designed for cattle - kill boxes need to be smaller, alleyways need to be narrower, floors need to be slip-free, etc etc. However some Canadian slaughterhouses (as evidenced) have taken in horses due to the increased demand for horsemeat, in the name of financial gain. So, can horse slaughter be improved to the point of being completely humane? Yes. Dr. Temple Grandin proves this, as do many other veterinarians. Further regulations need to be implemented and enforced - USDA officials and veterinarians always on site, regular and surprise audits conducted, horse slaughter being restricted to facilities designed specifically for equines, etc. Here are 1997 and 2000 audits of US bovine/swine slaughter facilities. Why cannot equine slaughter facilities be managed similarly?

Thanks to the HSUS and PETA, horses are now sent to Mexico, where regulations are minimal. Most facilities are not designed for horses but horses are rendered dead via stun guns or shotguns. However, some facilities (clandestine facilities in particular) render horses senseless via stabbing them repeatedly (sometimes up to a dozen or more times) in the neck. This does not render the horse dead, only immobilized. The horse is then bled out, alive, as it hangs via chains on the roof. The next horse is then pushed into the kill box, which is smeared with blood from the previous horse(s). *applause* to HSUS and PETA. Rather than focusing on further regulating the process here, you have shipped our horses off to Mexico to an inhumane death that cannot be controlled by our laws. Here is a HSUS video concerning Mexican slaughter. Nice depiction of a humane slaughter in North America, actually (the horse shot cleanly). I particularly like the part about "paints and palominos lined up"...when there is absolutely not a single paint or palomino in the line up (that one at the front is a grey). I guess "chestnuts and bays" didn't sound as fluffy as the "paints and palominos" lie.

Livestock vs pets
In my opinion, horses are not pets. They are 1,200lb animals that are typically used for a variety of purposes rather than companionship. They are livestock. This is not to say that horses cannot be companions (I certainly hope they are!), or that companion animals cannot serve a purpose (ie. search & rescue dogs), however the vast majority of the horse population has a very specific use whether it be ranch work or some type of sport such as dressage, jumping, or reining. As opposed to animals such as rabbits, snakes, dogs, cats, who are typically used for the sole purpose of companionship. Stripping a horse of its livestock status also removes it of other benefits (ie. certain disaster relief for horses, tax advantages, disease tracking, etc).

Mexico and Canada
Since the slaughter ban, Mexico has experienced a 312 percent increase in the number of horses imported for slaughter, while Canada has experienced a 41 percent increase (2006 compared to 2007). In addition, Mexico has had a 50 percent increase in the number of horses imported for breeding and riding purposes. Yet were they really imported for that purpose? Sounds like another uncorrectable loophole to me. Read more about it here. This means longer transport times and distances for horses as well as inhumane processes we have no control over down in Mexico, as well as some horses being slaughtered in Canada at bovine facilities. Currently individuals are pushing for laws against the exportation of horses for the purpose of slaughter, however who's to say a driver hauling a load of horses intended for breeding or riding down to Mexico or up to Canada doesn't suddenly have an epiphany when he crosses the border, and suddenly decides to instead transport the horses to slaughter? What's to stop him from lying about the destination of said load of horses or selling those horses on the other side of the border to someone who intends to slaughter them? Or - really - having an epiphany? Who are we to question his thoughts? If we cannot regulate an individual's intentions or thoughts, then we cannot have total control over the transport of our horses. Horses will continue to be transported across the borders regardless of law, it will just be done black-market style. The European Union could however refuse to purchase horsemeat from Mexico, but they are not going to do that when the demand for horsemeat continues to soar and Mexico and Canada continue to be the primary providers.

Unwanted horses
So where are 150,000 horses supposed to go? Reports are flitting about everywhere of horses being turned loose, of First Nations horses collecting on land and starving, and the HSUS continues to make some of the highest-numbered seizures in history of neglected and abused horses. Depressed horse prices thanks to the slaughter ban in the US, coupled with a downed economy only makes the situation worse for horses as horse owners face losing their jobs and homes are are therefore forced to give up the horses they can no longer provide for. Rescues report that they are full - overflowing, in fact. Where are all these horses supposed to go? Are we supposed to bury 150,000 horses yearly? What a waste!

Let's face it, most horses owners do not keep a horse for the entire span of its life. Some cannot, some will not. Are we supposed to expect competitors to continue to feed a horse for years that can no longer perform, in lieu of finding it a nice home where it can decorate a pasture or teach some young child to ride? Granted, most individuals definitely should take more responsibility for their horses and a lot more breeders should be taking responsibility for the lives they create, but on the other hand, not every person should be expected to keep a horse for its entire lifespan. Sometimes it just isn't justified to keep a horse - sometimes that horse would be better suited to another home (for the horse's own benefit) where they will be used, loved, and well cared for. You do your best to line up the best home possible, but sometimes good homes turn out to be your horse's worst nightmare, despite every effort made. I do not believe that everyone can, or should, keep every horse for life, but I do believe they should do their best to ensure that any horse who passes through their hands ends up in a similar, or better, scenario than they themselves could have provided. PETA (who backs HSUS) believes that if a specific individual can no longer care for a horse, that the horse should be euthanized. I definitely disagree.

The other aspect too is that a lot of horses are bred yearly, both by the racehorse industry and by backyard breeders or simply breeders lacking the proper knowledge. Breed associations also encourage further breeding and while they cannot directly control the number of foals registered, they can certainly put more of an emphasis on responsible breeding and on purchasing existing horses within their breed as opposed to creating more.

While I do believe that the majority of horses who go to slaughter are usable (in some fashion, be it pleasure horse or jumper), some are just old, debilitated, or dangerous. There are not enough knowledgeable individuals out there who can handle a well-balanced horse, let alone a horse with emotional and mental challenges. Some horses really are just downright dangerous for the average horseowner to own, and ultimately, as harsh as it sounds, the safety of humans do need to come first. There needs to be a place for those horses as well.

The solution
The racehorse industry should certainly be made to take responsibility for its horses. Incentives for keeping horses sound (and thus breeding for soundness) could be set up and rehabilitation/re-homing programs could possibly be set up, funded by fees taken out of increased registration fees (this could follow for any registry association) for horses that are to be used for racing purposes. Racehorses can take a lot of work to rehabilitate, and there just are not enough individuals out there who have the essential knowledge and who are up for the challenge (and reward!) 0f working with such horses. On the flip side though, not enough racehorses are making it into the hands of competent rescues or trainers that could offer them a second career. Racehorse owners and breeders need to be forced to take responsibility. Multi-billionaire owners/breeders should not be permitted to auction off a racehorse because they "can no longer afford to feed it", without considering other options and without making any attempt at re-homing the horse (I say this from personal experience). Some tracks in the US will ban trainers who send horses to auction, however sometimes this is just talk to impress the public and this is not enforced. More tracks I feel do need to take such responsibility and need to ensure they enforce it somehow.

As far as backyard breeders or individuals with breeding operations but lacking in the knowledge department, I say: education education education. Via the internet. Clinics. Magazines. It needs to be in their face, because not everyone is going to go looking for the right information. It works for the Brits! They slaughter a mere 0.6 percent of their horse population, thanks to a number of measures. Now I am not saying that we could bring our slaughter percentage down to that number, however I am sure we could certainly decrease it. Take a look at the segment "How the Brits do it" in the Nov 07 issue of Horse & Rider for ideas. I think we need to start looking at how other countries do it - both in methods and in keeping slaughter down to a necessary minimum. On the other hand, breeding is never going to be completely controlled and efficient, and we need to understand that and address it rather than simply ignoring it.

While slaughter in North America did range from mostly humane to exemplary, slaughter processes need to be improved beyond "satisfactory" to ensure that slaughter is a humane alternative to chemical euthanasia. In my opinion, slaughter needs to be re-implemented in the US. Our horses are now being treated in a far less humane manner, both in our own backyards as well as in foreign countries such as Mexico, than the least humane slaughter process possible in the US or Canada; some are even being shipped overseas - live - to Japan. Oh yay. Because we all know how humane the Japanese are with their animals (warning: graphic). Yup, very humane indeed.

Do I even like the idea of slaughter? Not anymore than the next horseowner/lover. My heart always goes out to the horses I know are bound for slaughter when I see them in barns or feedlots, at auctions, or in the trucks - I wish I could help them all! However (in my opinion) it simply is a necessary evil we need to accept and improve rather than outright ban. If you don't like slaughter, fine (really, does anybody??). However I'm not so sure that just because we do not get warm and fuzzy feelings from it, that it should not exist; I think we need to take a more practical approach. Personally, I feel that animals are here for our use, however that does not negate the requirement for humane and compassionate treatment.

In the mean time, here are a few links:

Grisly End for American Horses - HSUS (accompanies the video I mentioned above)

I like how HSUS portrays all Mexican slaughter plants as such though (that is not the case), and I definitely like how they say "Americans don't believe horses should be slaughtered for human consumption". Really? ALL Americans? Have you checked? Because last time I checked, Americans were slaughtering horses for human consumption, until your associations and supporters put a halt to that. On the other hand though, it is estimated that 90 percent of the US population is 3 generations off the farm (Horse & Rider Oct 07) - they tend to have a different view of livestock than ranch-raised populations.

Do your own research - be thorough, have an open mind, and be wary of some of the lies and mistruths propagated by some (especially by the anti-slaughter group, I've found).
Just a quick note, obviously I harbour a deep dislike for the HSUS and the SPCA/Humane Societies (Canada), for personal reasons (that's a whole other story for a rainy day, but they have accumulated a number of black marks in my books, and not because they have ever seized any of our own animals or anything of the like though), but I still wanted to post their videos because they do ultimately usually do good work, and they do have good points in the videos, even if their viewpoint is a bit skewered at times and they do try to twist the truth here and there where it suits them. You have to consider all evidence and have an open mind (just be careful of everything you read and see - yes, even here!), even if it sometimes comes from a source you may not entirely like. PETA, on the other hand - you won't find any of their videos here. I have heard (from friends with experience with PETA) of them killing entire barns full of thousands of pigs because they disagreed with raising pigs for meat (and it was done tortuously slow and brutal), and other such outrageous practices (again, another story for a rainy day) and I refuse to have anything to do with them. Extremist groups have their place in society (sometimes they help keep things in check), however PETA has just gone too far. Anyway, I just wanted to explain why the videos were up if I dislike them so much ;)


Seasons Ranch said...

How can anyone claim that slaughter is a necessary evil after watching the videos of the plants in Canada. Or the pictures of the horses stabbed in Mexico. And pardon me....but it is not Peta or HSA that have sent the horses to Mexico, it is the owners, people just like yourself that will "sell to the highest or lowest bidder" depending on the market for throw away horses. Its not about being a "vegetarian or bleeding heart", neither of which I am...its about a humane death for animals, and taking responsibility to see they do not suffer for hours/days and the last angonizing moments of panic. Putting a needle in a horse gives them maybe a few seconds of pain, not the same my dear. Keep breeding...and stay your course...after all...they are just a "product" to some people.

Equus said...

Ah, well obviously your opinion just differs from mine :)

I will not comment on the videos themselves, but suffice it to say that things are not always as they seem/appear/are told. That said however, assuming the video IS accurate of ONE plant, we obviously have work to do, right?! I don't believe a total ban is an answer, but that the process should be improved.

From my understanding, it is a very small number of Mexican plants that use knives. It is not possible to regulate horses across borders, and it might not be possible to regulate the transport of horses bound for slaughter (who is to say they are slaughter-bound?).

If you'll read my blog, you'll note that I did not say that PETA or HSUS directly sent the horses to Mexico, but that obviously the export of horses to Mexico and Canada is a result of the ban those two groups really pushed. Ultimately, the people you mention are the ones who actually send the horses...but unfortunately people are people and we cannot regulate or force what they do or how they view their horses.

People like myself? You know me? Please do not make any assumptions as to my life, my horses, or my beliefs. I don't "sell to the highest bidder" nor do I even breed at the moment. I completely believe in the necessity of a humane death, but I believe it can be done via slaughter as well, where (euthanasia) chemicals are not polluted into the environment and the whole animal is used rather than wasted. There is much room for improvement, but it is possible. Don't patronize me...horses are never a 'product' to me.

Anonymous said...

Why do you need to consume horse meat? You are supporting an inhumane practice by eating a companion animal. You might as well eat dogs or cats. I believe your consumption of horse meat is like eating a friend. Do you even know how horrible these wonderful animals are slaughtered? Or do you even care? Shame on all of you! Please refuse this as a food source!

Anonymous said...

I believe all people who engage in any part of horse slaughter are wrong and hope they will answer to a higher powe some day.

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