WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” it’s a good thing he didn’t say horses.
The stampede would have been swift and ugly. I should know.
In a previous column published on the hooves of the Kentucky Derby, I wrote about the horror of horse slaughter, a fate faced by many of the thoroughbreds we benignly cheer on race days. The situation is both worse, and not worse, than I reported.
Not worse: The figure I cited of 130,000 horses transported annually out of the country for slaughter was outdated. Although it isn’t possible to know the exact number, reports from Mexico and Canada show a significant decrease in imports, in part because of reduced demand following the EU’s ban on horsemeat from Mexico. According to the Equine Assistance Project, the true number is closer to half that, which is still abhorrent. Half of two is still too many.
Worse: We haven’t outlawed horse slaughter in the U.S. but have only blocked it temporarily. More on this later.
I’m revisiting the topic as I almost never do because of the backlash, frontlash and in-between-lash that followed publication of the column. Let’s just say hellfire and brimstone have found a new home in my inbox. Most letter writers were infuriated at my suggestion that perhaps, barring this and that, it would be better to slaughter horses here than there – in Mexico and Canada, where we send the retired steeds under horrendous conditions to be destroyed under the most-inhumane circumstances imaginable and then have their meat exported for human consumption.
“Humane slaughter,” apparently, is an oxymoron when it comes to horses, according to many who wrote me and who are much closer to the problem. A horse’s fight-or-flight reflex is so intense that the usual slaughter process is not smooth. The only “humane” death is by injection, preferably by a veterinarian, which we seem to understand when it comes to our smaller-sized pets. But most racehorses are no one’s pet; they’re money-making machines – overbred and abused by being forced to compete at age 2 or younger, before their bones are fully formed and often leading to injury and euthanasia.
Highlighting this latter point was my purpose in writing about horse racing as a change of pace from the usual politics – speaking of horse races. Watching the Derby on TV with a small crowd, I picked Justify to win on pure happenstance. That is, I happened to be standing next to Kate Denton, a breeder of Irish Connemara ponies in Camden, S.C., where I was at the time. Denton spoke to me about what she and many others feel is the barbarity of racing younger-than-3 colts, whereupon I became an immediate convert.
Although many animal-rights advocates would prefer an end to all animal racing, greyhounds included, more-realistic options are worth pursuing. A wide gulf exists between the extremes of eliminating an industry and horrific scenes of horses strung up and butchered in agony and terror.
The best solution, obviously, would be to stop horse slaughter altogether, which we’re close to accomplishing in the United States. As foreshadowed earlier, horse slaughter for human consumption has been blocked in the U.S. – hence the exportation of animals to be carved up and processed as food – but not yet outlawed. Rather, funding has been blocked for inspections by the United States Department of Agriculture, with the same, if relatively tenuous, result. Legislation has been written that would go a long way toward eliminating slaughter for human consumption, as well as the exportation of horses for same. The Safeguard American Food Exports Act, a bipartisan bill is, however, stuck in committee and needs a floor vote. A million horses – or even 100 – prancing on the National Mall would get some attention.
The necessity of framing this as a food-quality issue rather than an act of humane compassion underscores the difficulty of trying to enact laws aimed at reducing animal suffering. After all, we can’t even agree on when a human fetus suffers pain from being dismembered inside its mother’s womb. Thus, the SAFE Act is premised upon the fact that racehorses are given a wide variety of drugs, the residual effects of which could be harmful to horsemeat consumers.
Pending the bill’s approval, horse rescue and adoption agencies, which try to retrain horses for other purposes, could use some encouragement and financial backing, too. In a just world, organizations such as the Jockey Club and the American Quarter Horse Association, among others, would fund these adoption and rescue groups and, in untrainable cases, provide for veterinarian-administered euthanasia by injection.
If for no other reason, it would be good PR for an industry that could sorely use some.