ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The lions, tigers and bears at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo couldn’t have cared less about last year’s vociferous debate over whether horse slaughter should be resumed in the United States.
They were content just wolfing down their daily rations of imported horse meat – roughly 38,000 pounds of it per year.
Last year’s planned opening of a horse slaughter plant near Roswell outraged a large contingent – nationwide and in New Mexico – who argued that horse slaughter is inhumane and should not be allowed in the United States.
That controversy didn’t affect Albuquerque’s zoo, or its practice of feeding horse meat to many of its residents.
Zoo animals, it turns out, can be notoriously finicky eaters, said Ralph Zimmerman, the zoo’s head veterinarian. But the majority of the zoo’s large carnivores prefer horse meat over beef or pork, both of which would cost considerably more without offering the nutritional benefits of their equine counterpart.
Zimmerman said horse meat is “nutritionally very sound.” It’s higher in amino acids, B-6 and B-12 vitamins, and iron than beef and many other sources of protein.
“And it’s low in fat so it’s easier to balance an animal’s diet,” he said.
In fact, horse meat is so lean that zoos or their suppliers add taurine and extra vitamins to ensure it meets each animal’s dietary needs.
Zoo director Rick Janser said horse meat has been a daily staple of the zoo’s large carnivores – as well as smaller ones like Tasmanian Devils, various rodents and even birds of prey – for at least 30 years.
“It’s palatable, it’s digestible and they like it,” Janser said, noting that cheetahs – the pickiest eaters among the big cats – won’t readily eat anything but horse meat.
“They’re so weird about their diet,” he said. “They’d rather go hungry for a while than even think about eating something new.”
The zoo spends about $65,000 a year on horse meat – not quite 13 percent of its total annual feed budget of $508,000, Janser said. That comes out to about $1.70 a pound – considerably less expensive than beef or pork.
But price is a secondary consideration when it comes to the health of the zoo’s animals, he said.
The zoo requires that all of its horse meat meet the “human consumption” standard set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
But the last U.S. slaughter plant to process horse meat for human consumption closed in 2007 after Congress approved an appropriations bill that prevented the USDA from funding horse meat inspections.
That provision remained in subsequent appropriations bills until 2011 when Congress quietly removed it, effectively clearing the way for the resumption of domestic horse slaughter.
Although a few proposed plants received the required federal permits to begin horse-slaughtering operations – including Valley Meat Co. in Roswell – those plans were thwarted by lawsuits.
In January, Congress reinstated the ban on funding for horse meat inspections.
Canada is the only country the USDA currently allows to export horse meat to the United States, although none of it can legally be used for human consumption.
The BioPark Zoo buys its horse meat from Milliken Meat Products Ltd. in Markham, Ontario, Canada. Although there are a few U.S. companies that supply horse meat to zoos, they have been unable to provide the quality the zoo demands, Janser said.
“They use a lot of organ meat and byproducts … . You can get products that are cheaper, but they are cheaper. If you look at the ingredients … there are all sorts of additives and that’s not what we want,” Janser said.
Salmonella was also a problem with horse meat purchased from U.S. companies, Zimmerman said.
By insisting that the zoo’s horse meat be fit for human consumption, “We’re getting away from drug residue or any other contaminants that might be in the meat,” Zimmerman said.
Canadian inspectors ensure that the animals “are examined and held for an appropriate withdrawal period before they go to slaughter,” he said. “You can’t be 100 percent sure on anything, but they do their best to cover that.”
The withdrawal periods ensure that any drugs that might be in the horse’s tissues have been rendered inert before they are slaughtered.
Shortly after Congress quit funding horse meat inspection, zoo officials here experimented with a beef-based diet, Jenser said.
“Some animals would eat part of it and leave the rest,” he said. “Cheetahs totally refused to eat it. … It just didn’t work for us, so we quickly went back to horse meat.”