An unpalatable and indefensible initiative that cannot end well.
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives recently took the politically questionable – and morally objectionable – step of voting to allow horses to once again be slaughtered on American soil for human consumption.
It’s a massive power grab by the beef lobby, which would prefer to cull wild horses and burros so public lands can be devoted to livestock-grazing. No one else will rejoice in the heartland at the prospect of being able to chow down on a horse steak or a horse-burger. Most Americans are opposed to hippophagy, the eating of horse flesh. To many Americans in both major political parties, the issue of equine slaughter is on a par with clubbing baby harp seals to death or killing dolphins. And it should be. Horses are companion animals, just like dogs and cats. The horse is the unique symbol of the West and of Americans’ pioneering spirit. Republican celebrities like actress Bo Derek are outspoken opponents of killing horses for food. Republican lawmakers should be too.
So why now - with the Republican agenda faltering in Congress and the Trump White House under siege - is the GOP formulating new ways to alienate voters and play to their caricature as heartless servants of big business? Why are Republicans hell-bent on resurrecting an ugly, morally reprehensible practice that would put Misty of Chincoteague and Mister Ed back on the dinner table?
Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee recently approved reversing a de facto ban on slaughtering horses at meat-processing plants. Under current federal law, wild horses enjoy some legal protection; slaughtering healthy wild horses is forbidden. Several states outlaw the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Among them are California, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas.
On July 12, a Democrat amendment to H.R.3268, which funds USDA operations for federal fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1, was defeated in the House Appropriations Committee on a 27 to 25 vote. If that vote is not reversed, the spending measure would end the current ban on horse slaughter that was renewed in a huge spending bill President Trump signed into law in May.
On July 18 the same committee decided on a voice vote to approve an amendment offered by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) that deleted language from the Department of the Interior’s annual appropriations bill “that would have prohibited ‘the destruction of healthy, unadopted wild horses and burros in the care of’” the BLM and its contractors.
Stewart framed his amendment in humanitarian terms. “The bottom line is this: these horses are starving. They’re destroying the range. They’re crowding out the deer and the elk because we cannot manage them.”
But this is a red herring. If this were truly the problem, there are humane and relatively inexpensive ways to thin the herd like sterilization. The beef producers which are the main lobby for this legislation are apparently fine with their cattle “destroying the range” because they profit from it. Protect the Harvest is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded, funded, and run by cattleman and energy magnate Forrest Lucas of Lucas Oil Products Inc. and a driving force behind the new horse slaughter legislation. “Lucas has gone to great lengths to bring horse slaughter back,” according to conservative Marty Irby, who heads the equine campaign of the Humane Society of the United States, an advocacy group conservatives like Rush Limbaugh support.
Protect the Harvest produced a gut-wrenching short film in 2014 that supports the view that equines are suffering and dying horrible deaths because federal lands can’t support them. In the video titled "Horses in Crisis," rancher Mike Stremler, who serves on the board of directors of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, criticizes pro-horse activists. The idea is to shock YouTube viewers into agreeing with Lucas’s activist group that killing horses and eating them is actually humane. It’s a classic propaganda technique to show something everyone agrees is horrifying and then point conveniently in the direction of a favored cure.
In the clip, Stremler says: “I think the activists should come out when these horses are starving to death and when that horse gets to the point where it tips over and it lays there, for usually over 24 hours, the ravens come by and they pick out the eye that's up, and then it takes about another 12 hours for that horse to die. Everything that is alive at some point is going to die. But do we want to starve things to death? I know I don't. I'd rather see things managed properly.”
Although Stremler may be rightly distressed – as all Americans should be – at horses starving to death, it does not logically follow that slaughtering these creatures is a worthy solution to the problem of equine overpopulation. Are wild horses really starving because they are devouring all the available food on public lands, or is it because the government is mismanaging them? Conservatives should remember economist Milton Friedman’s famous words: "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand."
Horses cannot be slaughtered as easily as other animals like cattle because their behavior and anatomical features get in the way. This can make equine slaughter more closely resemble torture instead of civilized animal husbandry. The penetrative captive-bolt pistols that dispatch cattle efficiently by driving a 4-inch metal rod roughly the circumference of a roll of quarters into the animal’s brain, don’t work well on horses because their skulls are different from those of bovines. This can prolong the agony the horse experiences in its final minutes. “Workers sometimes need to shoot three or four times before the horse stops moving. The horse is then dumped out a side door and strung up by its feet, at which point workers slit its throat and drain the blood.”
Horses often fight with each other on the way to slaughter and it doesn’t help that they are kept in cramped quarters, something to which they’re not accustomed. “Horses also tend to be more excitable than cows—hence the blinders—and the smell of blood makes them nervous. Like other ‘flight animals,’ when they're scared, they try to run.” And getting the terrified horses to hold still in the “kill room” can be difficult. “Horses don't like things near their heads, so when a worker reaches over the railing with a bolt gun, they often swing their heads around, causing the gun to fire in the wrong place.”
While the humanitarian argument against horse slaughter may be sufficiently compelling, it can never be emphasized enough that there is no real constituency for horse slaughter in the U.S. outside a narrow band of ranchers and beef farmers. Armed with a new public opinion poll, the American Wild Horse Campaign reports that “an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans, including 86 percent of 2016 Trump voters and 77 percent of Clinton voters, want Congress to keep anti-slaughter protections in place.”
The poll of 556 registered voters was conducted in July by Democrat-friendly Public Policy Polling (PPP) of Raleigh, N.C.
“The American people have spoken, and they are resoundingly opposed to killing off America’s iconic mustangs,” says Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “These animals are a living link to this country's frontier history, and there are many cost-effective and humane ways to manage these herds that don’t result in their indiscriminate killing.”
The ban on equine slaughter has been in effect on and off for more than a decade and other legislation has been enacted to protect horses, both wild and domesticated. Because it is unlawful to sell, serve, or distribute meat that hasn’t passed USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) inspection, slaughter opponents have enforced the prohibition every fiscal year by tacking on legislative “riders” denying the USDA funding to provide inspectors to oversee the butchering of horses. There are reportedly no horse abattoirs in operation in the United States.
President Trump's budgetary blueprint for 2018, unveiled in May, proposed using “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.” According to one analysis, the Trump proposal “could lead to sales of wild horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada, as well as to the culling of herds, to address what the [Bureau of Land Management] calls an ‘unsustainable’ situation.”
The BLM reportedly spends around $50 million annually for the upkeep and feeding of more than 46,000 wild horses and burros in taxpayer-funded corrals. “Another 73,000 of the animals roam freely across the western states, producing foals and grazing on public lands that conservationists and federal officials say are quickly deteriorating.”
The BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program has quadrupled in size since 2000, rising from $20.4 million to $80.4 million in 2017. But it’s not working. In fact, there are few examples of government mismanagement quite as egregious as the BLM’s handling of the program. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, BLM is tasked with protecting the wild horses and burros of 10 western states and with preventing overpopulation. To do this, for years BLM has been rounding up and removing horses and burros from the wild -- sending them to holding facilities where most remain for the rest of their lives, despite repeated admonitions from Congress and scientific advisory panels that this was a very bad idea. The program was certain to end up costing them a lot of money -- and would do nothing to lower population numbers on the range.
In 2007, the BLM got very close to achieving appropriate population levels. In what can only be described as a textbook example of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory, BLM declined to take advantage of a manageable population level and shift resources towards managing horses and burros on the range by controlling fertility. Instead, they did nothing. Predictably, the horses and burros on the range bred again, and again, and the population once again soared.
And now, to fix the problem past administrations created -- the BLM has requested the authority to slaughter up to 90,000 wild horses and burros.
This country was built on the backs of horses -- and they don’t deserve to be slaughtered because the BLM has bungled the job of managing them. If they are in fact slaughtered, it will cost millions of dollars to round them up, and they will just reproduce again. Once again, the government will spend a lot of money not solving a problem.
And unfortunately, if the proposal to slaughter horses and burros moves forward -- history will remember this administration as the one that failed the wild horses -- and past administrative failures will be forgotten.
There is a solution. It is elegant, humane, and in the end, less costly. Scrap the current program, prioritize our herd management areas and begin a comprehensive fertility-control program for each herd. Within a decade, the herds will stabilize. It’s time to start innovating with programs that promise long-term program health and respect for both wild horses and taxpayers.
Unfortunately, our Republican government isn’t pursuing this equine-management strategy. Instead of looking to a more politically prudent option like birth control measures – which can be relatively inexpensive – to reduce the horse population, the 2018 Trump budget assumes savings to taxpayers of $10 million per year through the sale of animals and by downsizing roundup and birth-control treatment for horses. In other words, Republicans are being pennywise and pound foolish, and also cruel and inhumane.
The Trump administration also appears to have ignored the 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences, “Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward.” The Report concludes that BLM’s “Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands." As a remedy, the report urges the use of fertility-control methods to limit population growth.
Horse slaughter is not only cruel it’s politically stupid. After the July 12 ban-lifting vote, there was immediate blowback against the heartless, inhumane Republicans. After the motion to continue the ban in the USDA spending bill failed, senior Democrats on the committee, Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Sanford Bishop (Ga.), issued a statement: “We deeply regret the Committee's failure to adopt Rep. [Louise] Roybal-Allard's [D-Calif.] amendment to prohibit the inspection of horses for slaughter for human food. There are far better and more humane ways to deal with unwanted horses, and the past experience in this country of slaughtering horses for human food was, frankly, a disaster.”
The Congressional Animal Protection Caucus boasts 127 members in the 435-member House of Representatives, largely leftist Democrats, but that figure is inflated. The list of CAPC members on Blumenauer’s congressional website hasn’t been updated in a while. “Members” Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) no longer serve in Congress. Also on the list are non-voting House delegates Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
There are around a dozen Republican members of the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus, including co-chairman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Peter King (R-N.Y.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.). So CAPC is not an insignificant force in Congress.
A business “investing in horse slaughter is like someone opening a dog meat restaurant or a cockfighting arena,” blogged Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society “The mere presence of it would stir the public to act and cause lawmakers and advocates to work to shut down such an operation with speed and authority. We don’t round up dogs and cats for slaughter, and it should be unthinkable to do that to a species that helped us settle the nation. Our humane position is grounded on the notion that people who breed and own horses should act responsibly and provide lifetime care or transfer horses to someone who can.”
A side effect of lifting the ban on horse slaughter would be to place a bounty the head of every unwanted domesticated horse as well. The going price for a horse sold to slaughter ranges from $600 to $1000 – a powerful incentive to kill horses for owners who have fallen on hard times.
The Humane Society’s Martin Irby says he hopes GOP lawmakers “who profess to be fiscal conservatives” will begin to practice what they preach. “As a lifelong Republican,” Irby added, “I’m deeply saddened and quite ashamed to see my fellow conservatives go to such great lengths to promote the slaughter of American equines.”
This politically tone-deaf move by Republicans to lift a justly popular ban on horse-killing makes them water-carriers for inhumane legislation promoted by a special interest seeking to benefit itself at the expense of a noble creature and an American heritage.
Given horses’ long history in this country and the reverence in which they are held by Americans, Republicans should halt this destructive campaign and come up with a solution to equine overpopulation that doesn’t involve slaughtering these wonderful creatures for food.