August 30, 2006

Reigning in Horse Slaughter

The Hampton Classic Horse Show has been an annual event marking the end of the official summer season in the Hamptons for some 30 years now. But as thousands gather in Bridgehampton to celebrate the grace and beauty of horses, across the country, the creatures are anything but honored. Close to 100,000 per year†are killed in foreign-owned slaughterhouses, their flesh frozen and sold overseas for human consumption.

Next week, federal lawmakers — local Congressman Tim Bishop among them — will vote to cease the slaughter of equines for human consumption. According to Nancy Perry, vice president of government affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, the bill has garnered bi-partisan support in both Congress and the Senate. New York senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton are supporters and Bishop is a co- sponsor of the house version.

And that's not all. Celebrities like Christy Brinkley and Paul McCartney, plus stars across the country including Willie Nelson, Kid Rock and George Steinbrenner, have signed on in opposition to the brutal industry. Dozens of racing and breeding groups in New York and nationally have added their support to the effort.

It's not surprising. Members of the community were shocked to learn that even a Kentucky Derby winner couldn't escape the horrible fate. Several years ago, Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year, made his last headlines when his slaughter was reported in the media. Japanese gourmets were given the chance "to eat an American champion."

How could it happen? According to Perry, it is the nature of the industry that a horse changes hands often. "We've seen animals with their manes still in braids from the last horse show on line outside the slaughterhouses," she said.

Not all owners realize that the person purchasing their horse at auction could be what's known as a "kill buyer," a representative who collects animals for slaughterhouses. Beyond auctions, many of the horses killed at plants in Texas and Illinois are stolen from ranches and even taken from the wild. In fact, Perry said that when California cracked down on the sale of horses to houses where they're slaughtered for human consumption, the horse theft rate decreased by 34%.

For those animals that are rounded up, the road to death is a brutal one. There are laws designed to ensure humane slaughter, but animal rights activists say they are not enforced. The horses are trucked cross- country, often in vehicles designed to ship pigs and smaller animals. Crammed in spaces where they can't even lift their heads, the horses are denied water and food.

At the slaughterhouse, it gets worse. Once again, the law requires that butchers stun the horse before cutting its throat. But, unlike cattle, horses have a highly developed fright reflex. They can startle and jerk causing the tool used for stunning to hit the wrong place and fail to work. "We have seen horses hung upside down to be gutted, and they are still wide awake," Perry said.

In addition to railing against the cruelty involved in horse slaughter, advocates also complain that the industry simply has no place in the United States. The handful of slaughterhouses located out west are foreign-owned and pay little taxes. There is no market for horsemeat in this country, nor demand. Meg Bunce, an East Hampton resident who is working to raise awareness and support for the bill, said, "This is a despicable act committed against over 90,000 American horses on American soil at foreign hands for foreign tastes. I truly don't understand why this isn't an open and shut case in favor of the horse."

As Bunce works locally to raise awareness, national organizations will push for passage of the legislation next week. A rally in Washington is planned to garner support for the bill and to educate the public about "this dirty secret that needs to be exposed," as Perry described it. She noted that since advocates have worked to raise awareness, the number of animals killed has dropped from a high of 500,000 six years ago. More and more horse lovers are making sure that when they sell their animals to a supposed good home, it really is one. Perry and Bunce both urge horse lovers to contact their government representatives and ask them to sign on in favor of the ban.

Congressman Tim Bishop already has. A co-sponsor of the bill, he said this week, "As we celebrate the Hampton Classic, we must not forget the thousands of horses nationwide who need our protection. As a co-sponsor of HR503, I look forward to this important bill coming up for a vote so we can permanently remove the threat of slaughtering horses. I also applaud the dedicated activists who work so hard to raise awareness and protect horses."

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