Mark Holmberg: Is slaughtering horses good for this country?

Recently, with a stroke of his pen, President Obama has re-opened the doors to U.S. horse slaughterhouses,  a complex decision that has divided horse lovers and animal rights groups.

Now, our horses could wind up on dinner tables in Europe, or in a lion’s belly here, if we choose that route instead of an expensive burial.

Equine slaughter used to be an industry worth tens of millions of dollars each year and likely would effect some 140,000 horses each year, the estimated number being shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.

Horsemeat has more protein and less fat and cholesterol than beef. Horse leather is naturally waterproof and more rugged than cowhide. Horse products are a valuable commodity in many nations.

Here,  the disposal of horse bodies is a complex problem – and frequently expensive – easily more than a thousand dollars.  Many landfills don’t take horse carcasses and the practice of rendering – in essence, boiling the bodies down to make glue and other animal products – has been all-but regulated out of existence.

And horses are suffering because of it.

The spending bill Obama signed would re-fund government  inspections of these kinds of slaughterhouses, which were shut down five years ago because passion against the practice lead to defunding of inspections. That’s when the three remaining plants operating in Texas and Illinois closed their horsemeat operations.

But a strongly worded report this summer by the Government Accountability Office said the ban depressed prices for horses in the U.S. and led to a surge in reports of neglect or abuse as owners of older horses had no way of disposing of them, short of selling them to – quote – “foreign slaughtering facilities where U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply.”

There are more than nine million horses in the United States and nowhere near enough rescue organizations or money to care for the tens of thousands of unwanted horses, says the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“There is an overpopulation, and it’s very sad,” said Patti Carter with the Beaverdam Equestrian Center. “If I could, I’d rescue them all.”

She believes there’s too much horse breeding in the nation. And while she’s against equine slaughter, she understands the need for it, as long as it is tightly monitored.

But she doesn’t like that people who profit from horses – like some in the racing industry – use the slaughter option when the animals are no longer profitable.

“They work so hard, the horses,” said Carter, who has several rejected racers at her stable. “You know, they run their hearts out for you. They do everything you ask.”

PETA is against equine slaughter and transport, but says US-inspected slaughterhouses are a better option. Other equine rescuers dispute the Accountability Office’s conclusion, saying there’s more abuse and neglect because people are more alert for it and those who don’t take good care of their horses can’t make them disappear as easily.

It is a tough, emotional issue – what to do with companion and work animals that weigh a half-ton – creatures very similar the animals routinely consumed in this nation.

Have you ever buried a horse?

I have. It’s not easy. 

Yes, it was a trusted family friend. My kids grew up riding Robin. We still have three other horses, including one that has been in the family for more than a quarter century.

Yes, we become attached to our horses and shudder that the idea of them being forklifted to a butcher’s table.

But it’s better that any slaughterhouses being used are  here and regulated, instead of our horse taken a long, often cruel last ride to a questionable plant across the border.

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