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Correction: Please note that MAHR paid $550 for Civil Hero, not $5500 as the article states.

Racing's nasty secret:
horse slaughter

Congress may ban export of animals killed for their meat


Posted Sunday, June 24, 2007

Horses are paraded onto the auction floor at the New Holland Sales Stables in New Holland, Pa. The auction attracts stables from around the region and is considered the first stop on the way to the slaughterhouse for many horses.

Special to The News Journal/MATTHEW JONAS

Ginny Suarez, president of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue in Chesapeake City, Md., Carol Basile, of Friends of Twilight, and Beverly Strauss, executive director of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue, pose with three horses they "saved" from slaughter.


Ginny Suarez shows the identification number, tattooed into the horse's upper lip, that's used for race horses.


Horses of all ages and sizes await their fate at the New Holland, Pa., auction house. About 300 horses are auctioned off weekly.

Special to The News Journal/MATTHEW JONAS

Buyers and owners browse the stables as a horse is saddled in preparation for being shown on the auction floor.

Special to The News Journal/MATTHEW JONAS

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. -- His name is Battle Time and he's a 6-year-old Thoroughbred -- much like many of those straining and snorting down the stretch at Delaware Park.

Only Battle Time was ornery and his owner never could quite bring him under control.

So he was trucked to a stable in New Holland, Pa. -- a destination that often is the first step toward the "killer chute," where more than 100,000 horses are slaughtered each year to provide meat in nations where horseflesh is a delicacy.

In the U.S., horse meat was often used in pet food, but the practice withered away since 1966 after the Food and Drug Administration required listing ingredients and the public voiced its distaste, according to industry associations.

Fate was kind to Battle Time. He was bought by Elena DiSilvestro, who runs a horse rescue operation in Hartly.

She's one of many who have battled the slaughter business for years -- people now looking to Congress for a final victory in an effort that has shuttered two of the three U.S. horse slaughterhouses and may soon close the third.

Congress is considering a bill that would ban the export of horses for slaughter for meat, a move that would seal the fate of an industry dominated by three foreign-based corporations.

"These are our friends, our companions, and they have been a part of our history," says Tony Leva, 62, Elena's father and partner in the 7-year-old rescue operation. "To eat them is something we in America don't want."

But the industry, as well as some breeders, racers, and owners, are fighting the legislation, backed by veterinarians and others who say the killing is humane.

More important, they believe -- and slaughter opponents concede -- there is no other way to handle the tens of thousands of horses that can no longer compete on tracks, pull Amish buggies or whose owners can no longer afford them.

The stakes are high in Delaware, home to more than 30,000 horses valued in 2004 at more than $135 million. Standardbred and Thoroughbred racing is the backbone of an equine industry the state Agriculture Department estimated in 2003 at $360 million, involving 3,062 jobs.

Equine industry officials say they cannot estimate how many horses from Delaware are sent to auctions each year. They say horse owners and breeders are divided in their views on horse slaughter and the federal legislation.

The Delaware Equine Council, an umbrella for horse-related organizations that claims about 4,000 members, is neutral on the issue.

"I think [the ban] is a good thing on one hand, but what happens to the unwanted horses? That's a concern that many people have," said Peggy Koster of Seaford, the council's vice president.

Linda Chick, a Harrington breeder, owns about 10 horses, including several that compete in harness races at Harrington Raceway and Dover Downs. When they're done racing, she, like many others in the industry, keeps them "in the pasture many times as pets because they do convert well to being riding horses."

She's unsettled by the notion that one of her horses might end up at a slaughterhouse: "Personally, it makes me cringe to even think about it."

On the block

The weekly auction at New Holland Sales Stables, about 35 miles northwest of Newark, draws hundreds of people from several states.

The sprawling stables were built in an otherwise quiet town of about 5,100, nestled into the rolling Lancaster County hills, home to many Amish farms.

As many as 400 people are seated in dingy gray bleachers to see the auction, where as many as 300 horses, lots of ponies, a mule or two and the occasional burro change hands.

Some -- no one is sure exactly what percentage -- will be packed onto trailers and hauled to slaughterhouses, where they'll be shot in the head, have their throats cut and eventually have their choicest parts served up on dinner plates in France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, where horse meat is cherished. The process is not unlike most beef slaughterhouses.

Standing among the Amish on this Monday is Beverly Strauss, executive director of MidAtlantic Horse Rescue in Chesapeake City, Md., whose mission is to buy as many Thoroughbreds as she can afford before the "killer buyers" -- the free-lance purchasing agents for the horse meat industry -- can buy them.

"It's a nasty, nasty business," Strauss said.

The battle against slaughter is one that has been fought for decades, but strong opposition dates to the death of Ferdinand, a colt who won the Kentucky Derby in 1986 and the Breeder's Cup Classic a year later. Ferdinand was retired in 1988, was a washout at stud and was sold in 1994 to Japanese breeders. Most accounts have it that Ferdinand was slaughtered in 2002 and either ended up as pet food or a Japanese entree.

"Americans don't even know that horses that are not raised for this purpose are bought by the killer buyers and sold to slaughter," said Nancy Perry, vice president for government affairs with the Humane Society of the United States. "This is not an industry that we want to support in this country."

Perry's objections start with the transportation of animals to auctions and slaughter, packed into trailers and often traveling for hours without food or water.

In Canada, where most auctioned-off Delaware horses go, a gunshot is delivered to a horse's head, either killing it instantly or rendering it insensitive to pain. The horse then is hoisted up by its hind legs for a throat cutting that makes sure that the horse is dead.

Administered properly, the killing methods are endorsed as humane by experts who train veterinarians.

Last year, three foreign-owned slaughterhouses -- two in Texas, which have since closed, and one in Illinois -- killed 90,000 to 100,000 horses for human consumption. About 30,000 more were shipped to Mexico and Canada to be slaughtered for food.

Perry claims the slaughterhouses have ignored expert calls for restraints to hold a horse's head in place to make sure that bolts and bullets are lethal. She says horses are prone to head movements and will buck in terror at the smell of blood or the sight of what happens to horses ahead of them.

"When they go to the 'kill box,' " Perry said, "the only restraint is the fence under them. And you have poorly trained, low-paid employees operating these captive bolt guns."

James D.Tucker, general manager of Cavel International in Illinois, the only U.S. slaughterhouse still operating today, bristled at Perry's remarks.

"We use small, hand-held devices, and we can follow the movements of the head very effectively," he said. "It's a method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, and, if we weren't doing it right, the [U.S.] Department of Agriculture would close us down."

The American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents 75,000 veterinarians, supports horse slaughter as a humane means of disposing of unwanted horses. That position has spawned a new Washington-based organization called Veterinarians for Equine Welfare, which disagrees.

Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA's governmental relations division, said his group opposes the proposed legislation because it makes no provision for the care of unwanted horses.

The Humane Society's preferred euthanasia method -- barbiturates administered by a veterinarian -- is too costly for most horse owners, who also would have to pay to dispose of carcasses.

"If slaughter is not an option," Lutschaunig said, "where are we going to get the money to care for them?"

No real answer

The federal legislation does not provide an answer.

Last September, the House of Representatives passed an export ban 263-146, but the Senate did not act before the session ended in December.

The legislation has been re-introduced this year and the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was endorsed in April by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. It awaits action by the full Senate.

"I can tell you that the senator wants to make sure this cruel and inhumane process is abolished in the United States," spokeswoman Stephanie Allen said.

As of January, that mission had been largely accomplished.

The two Texas slaughterhouses, run by French-owned Beltex Corp. and Belgian-owned Dallas Crown Inc., were closed in January under a 58-year-old state law that bans the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

The Illinois plant of Belgian-owned Cavel International has kept its doors open with a temporary restraining order as it tries to persuade a federal judge to throw out a state law enacted last month to put it out of business.

If it loses, the domestic horse slaughter industry will come to a halt.

Even so, Perry said the flow of horses into Mexico has increased threefold since the Texas slaughterhouses were shut down, exposing horses to an even worse killing process in which a horse's neck is slashed to sever its spinal chord.

Former Texas congressman Charles Stenholm is a lobbyist for a coalition of 200 organizations called the Horse Welfare Coalition, which includes the three U.S. slaughterhouses. Stenholm thinks the export ban will fail to pass.

"Some people believe no animal should ever be killed and, certainly, not eaten," he said. "But a majority of horse owners disagree with this legislation. If you don't want your horse slaughtered, then don't sell it."

Delaware Park influence

The Humane Society concedes that the 440 rescue organizations in its database can't handle all the horses that now parade to slaughter.

DiSilvestro, who operates The Summerwinds Stables in Hartly, is always at or beyond her capacity of 10 horses. She says the federal and state governments need to step into the breach.

"The solution is management, and, right now, there's no management," she said.

For now, people like Strauss, the horse rescuer from Chesapeake City, try to keep as many horses as possible alive. She estimates that since late 2002 she's taken in more than 250 horses and farmed out more than 300 others, many to therapeutic facilities.

Strauss, 49, was moved to rescue horses by her experience as a trainer at Delaware Park. Horses used to be shipped straight from the Thoroughbred racing venue to the New Holland auction when they lost a step or two, but she credits the advent of slots gambling in 1995 for reversing that tide.

Purses beefed up by gambling proceeds attracted better horses, and many horses not up to Delaware Park standards still are able to compete at lesser tracks.

Today, some of those lesser tracks send cast-off horses to New Holland, where on a recent Monday the action on the auction floor quickly moved through quarter horses, Belgians, Western pleasure horses, Tennessee walkers, Standardbreds and Shetlands. Prices ranged from $60 to $8,000.

The auctioneer and a commentator sit behind a desk two risers up in the bleachers. About 80 minutes into the auction, they still had to sell 250 more horses tethered to pylons. He appealed to bidders to step up the pace.

"Keep 'em coming," he said.

Strauss bid $5,500 to beat out a 'killer buyer,' the only other bidder, for a 3-year-old Thoroughbred named Civil Hero.

"We'll take him, evaluate him and place him as a show horse or whatever he's going to be," she said.


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