The Government Accountability Office released a new report yesterday, “Horse Welfare: Action Needed to Address Unintended Consequences from Cessation of Domestic Slaughter,” and some proponents of horse slaughter are using it as a rallying cry to re-open equine abattoirs on American soil. But the GAO report is a lot more nuanced than the horse slaughter industry suggests, and the report provides some good insights into better policy solutions for horse welfare. And it confirms what we have long known: that shipping horses long distances in double-decker trailers and killing them for food exports isn’t good for the horses.
The report indicates that since Congress blocked the use of tax dollars for USDA to conduct horse slaughter inspections in 2005, and since state legislation shut down the last remaining plants in Illinois and Texas in 2007, there have been anecdotal accounts of an increase in horse neglect and abandonment, and a decline in horse prices. Given that this time period has coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the GAO can’t conclude whether these problems are due to a closure of U.S. horse slaughter plants or to the country’s financial crisis. However, the report clearly shows that the number of horses being sent to slaughter, more than 130,000 each year, has not changed all that much since the closure of the domestic plants (due to an increase in export of horses for slaughter to Canada and Mexico), suggesting that the same number of irresponsible owners—not more—are still sending their horses to slaughter.
Industries that want to profit from horse slaughter, and the export of American horse meat to Europe and Asia, will claim that we need to re-open horse slaughter plants in the U.S. so that horses are not traveling long distances to Canada and Mexico, and that Congress should fund USDA oversight of horse slaughter, potentially adding millions of dollars to the federal budget and distracting agency inspectors from other food safety responsibilities. But when a handful of slaughter plants did operate in the U.S., horses still traveled long distances across the country in dangerous double-decker trucks, and the transport and slaughter processes involved were inherently inhumane. There’s no reason to believe that slaughter plants would spring up in every community to make the transport distances shorter, or that horses would evolve into a species that no longer has a flight response, which makes the stunning and slaughter process very difficult and clumsy. It’s like saying the U.S. should repeal its child labor laws because bad actors are using Mexican children to work in factories or transporting American children across the border to Mexico to work in response to U.S. law.
Instead, the GAO report offers a menu of options for lawmakers and regulators to consider, some of them very good: The report recommends that “Congress may wish to consider instituting an explicit ban on the domestic slaughter of horses and exports of U.S. horses intended for slaughter in foreign countries.” That’s the right response for Congress to stem the tide of American horses going over our borders for slaughter in Canada and Mexico and ensure that this inhumane practice doesn’t resume in this country. That’s exactly what the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act aims to do. The Senate bill, S. 1176, was introduced this month by Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The House-passed agriculture spending bill retains the current de-funding provision to block funds for horse slaughter, and we’ll be working to make sure that the right language holds up in the Senate and that key members of the Appropriations Committee don’t attempt to subvert the House position when they hammer out the final bill in conference committee. Congress needs to ban exports of horses for slaughter, not try to create a new network of U.S. slaughter plants.
The GAO report also confirms that the use of double-decker trailers in the transport of horses represents a significant threat to animal welfare, recommending that “USDA issue a final rule to protect horses through more of the transportation chain to slaughter.” Double-decker trailers are designed for animals such as cattle and pigs—shorter-necked species than horses, who require more headroom than double-decker trailers afford. Horses often throw their heads to maintain balance, and injure themselves easily in such vehicles. In 2006, a double-decker truck hauling 41 horses in Missouri crashed, killing 16 horses. In 2007, a double-decker carrying 59 horses in Illinois struck another vehicle after blowing through a stop sign. It took five hours to rescue the horses from this mangled truck, resulting in the death of nine of them; six died later due to injuries sustained. In both instances, the design of the trailers caused horses to lose parts of their legs or break their backs. A few were crushed under the weight of other horses falling on top of them.
Such a rule to prevent injury and death was first proposed by USDA in 2007, and we call on the agency to finalize it without delay, banning the use of double-decker trailers for the transport of horses to all points en route to slaughter.
In addition to policy solutions, more education of horse owners is needed. The cost of horse ownership has gone up significantly, at a time when the average horse owner’s ability to afford that cost has fallen drastically. This situation can only be resolved by greater outreach and information about the private responsibilities and expense of horse ownership, and the options available to struggling horse owners such as adoption and rescue groups. We also need a continued reduction in breeding of new horses while the economy is creating fewer, not more, horse owners—a practice that many responsible horsemen are currently following.
The horse slaughter industry, along with their allies in the agribusiness lobby and some veterinarians aligned with industry, are the ones who have blocked legislation to stop long-distance transport of horses to foreign countries for the purpose of slaughter, and have created the major problem identified by the GAO report. These horse exports exist only because of their obstructionism, and Congress can solve this aspect of the problem by passing the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. It’s time for all sides to come together and act with great haste to close our national borders to the horse slaughter pipeline.