Great news for our pastured pals: thanks to a newly approved budget, the United States may be back to being a horse slaughter-free zone. In an animal welfare battle that has waged back and forth over the last few years, horses appear to have gained the upper hand, and it ended up being a simple matter of economics, as the government decided to choke off funding for the inspectors needed to oversee horse slaughter facilities. That makes it impossible for any slaughterhouse in the country to legally handle horses, no matter where the meat ends up.
Between 2005-2011, Congress refused to fund inspectors designated for horse slaughter facilities, largely sidestepping the larger issue of horse slaughter in the United States. By making it impossible to legally conduct slaughter (and produce meat for commercial sale, whether domestically or internationally), the government protected horses, without being directly engaged in the animal welfare arguments over whether horses should be spared slaughter — Republicans and Democrats alike seemed to agree that horses, as part of the heritage of the United States, were a political animal no one wanted to mess with.
But that changed in 2011, when Congress dropped the prohibition on funding inspectors for horse slaughterhouses, which made it possible to open such facilities — and this encouraged several states to explore the idea, against the heated protest of residents and people from around the country. The fact that Congress has reversed its policies yet again is a sign that it’s listening to members of the public, who take exception to the idea of seeing these majestic companion animals, working animals, and athletes trucked off for slaughter in horrible and often abusive conditions.
The Humane Society of the United States is pushing Congress to take the next step and pass the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, which would permanently ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. In addition to making it illegal to kill horses for food in the United States (an issue not just from an animal welfare perspective, but also a food safety one, because horses in the United States take a variety of medications that are not safe for the food supply), the SAFE Act also bars the export of horses for slaughter, effectively protecting all U.S. horses from the carving knife, even if they fall on hard times.
Meanwhile, firms standing to profit from horse slaughter are fighting these regulations hard, and undoubtedly will be arguing that the government is attempting to interfere with the market. This may create an interesting situation in the courts; while politicians may be willing to take a stand to protect horses on the grounds that 80% of people in the United States oppose the slaughter of horses for meat, judges must be impartial, and if they consider such laws to be discriminatory in nature, they may reverse regulations intended to stop horse slaughter.
This issue is particularly pressing now, as horses are becoming expensive to keep, particularly in the West, where extended drought conditions are forcing many farmers and families to buy hay and feed to supplement the diets of their animals. In such conditions, people are often forced to sell their horses, sometimes at very low cost, and such horses are precisely those who are most likely to end up in the slaughter yard, even if their owners take every possible step to avert such a fate. For those forced to make the unpleasant choice to sell a horse they can no longer afford, an assurance that their beloved former companions won’t end up being killed for food would be welcome.
Photo credit: Smabs Sputzer.