Opinion

FoodPolitik: The unintended consequences of banning horse-slaughter

As a rule, Americans don’t eat horse meat. We dropped the habit after World War II, but 14 percent of the world’s population still has a taste for it. That’s more than one billion people. Should Americans be allowed to serve that market?

It’s an increasingly thorny question. Until recently, a handful of U.S. slaughterhouses processed horse meat for consumers overseas. But in 2007 Congress cut off the USDA’s funding for inspectors. Since then, says a study published last month in the Journal of Animal Science, a flood of unwanted horses has been unleashed on the American west.

About 100,000 unwanted American horses turn up every year. And the Journal of Animal Science authors note that the capacity of all the U.S. equine recues and sanctuaries combined is just 13,400.

To animal rights activists who never met an animal they couldn’t lecture you over, there’s no excuse for slaughtering a horse. The wealthy Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) led the push to shutter the industry four years ago.

Last week a national “horse summit” convened in Las Vegas to discuss this issue. And there’s lots to talk about. Tens of thousands of horses are starving at any given time in the United States. And many U.S. horses are still slaughtered for food, but now (thanks to HSUS) they’re trucked great distances to Canada and Mexico.

In 2000, virtually no horses were exported from the U.S. to Mexico for slaughter. Last year 50,000 made the trip. American humane slaughter regulations carry no weight South of the Border, so activists trying to save horses from what they considered a cruel death may have guaranteed them something far worse.

And for every American horse that sees a Mexican kill floor, another like it is left to fend for itself, often dying slowly from starvation. In the current economy, some horse owners are left without options. They used to be able to sell their animals for slaughter, but no more. Some can’t afford the $500 it typically costs to hire a veterinarian to euthanize and dispose of a single horse. Instead, many  just “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Talk about unintended consequences. Unintended, but not unforeseeable.

The American Veterinary Medical Association figured out years ago what would happen in the wake of a horse-slaughter ban. So did many state-level Veterinary Medical Associations. But the Humane Society of the United States out-lobbied them.

To HSUS, PETA, and other groups like them, horses are pets, not food. They’re also lucrative pawns, playing second fiddle only to dogs and cats in terms of fundraising effectiveness.

So if you’re HSUS, and you’ve caused incalculable suffering to tens of thousands of horses, what do you do about it?

You “rescue” one of your own casualties. And then cynically use the animal to raise even more money.

HSUS collected $1.2 million during its recent holiday donation drive. Part of that campaign focused on an “Animal Survivor” story of a horse named Second Chance. “This is Second Chance,” HSUS’s website intoned. “He survived.”

The animal rights group rolled cameras while its young West Virginia director told the three-handkerchief tale of how the emaciated animal was nursed back to health. “Second Chance wouldn’t have made it without you,” she adds.

Apparently, no one told Second Chance he was supposed to be an “Animal Survivor.” He died in the middle of the fundraising season, just as HSUS was telling potential donors that he went “from a walking skeleton to a beautiful horse on the road to recovery.”