April 5, 2007

Two weeks ago Jeffrey McMurray, erstwhile college basketball writer turned AP horse slaughter authority, set off a firestorm of controversy when he alerted the world to an exploding crisis of equine abandonment in the United States. McMurray claimed this crisis had its epicenter in Kentucky, the very heart of Thoroughbred horse country.

He further declared that horses were being turned loose in the thousands and even being left chained to trees, and that all this was the fault of activists who had forced horse slaughter plants to close in recent years and left no outlet for these "unwanted" horses.

The story drew criticism for its unfortunate factual shortcomings, not the least of which was that horse slaughter has not diminished in recent years but has more than doubled since 2002.

There was also the unfortunate repudiation of McMurray's claims about abandoned horses roaming the countryside by the Kentucky State Police media relations commander, by virtually every member of the Kentucky Animal Care and Control Association, and by Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY).

But of course one has to expect the occasional dissenting voice if one is to warn the country of an impending threat that does not readily manifest itself in verifiable ways and does not enjoy the support of any established facts. The late Joseph McCarthy understood that challenge.

This week McMurray has revisited the story like an arsonist returning to his fire to stare into the flaming wreckage and make guarded third person observations from the sidelines.

With amazing journalistic detachment, he uses his own story as an unnamed source to back up his contention that there is a reasoned ongoing debate.

He states, "Earlier this month, an Associated Press story reported that to some local observers, the closing of slaughterhouses under public and political pressure appears to be leading some horse owners in eastern Kentucky to turn their animals loose."

This tortured statement is a tour de France of back-peddling compared to the frantic shrieks of "FIRE!" in his original article. Could it be that his keepers have felt the heat?

They should have felt the heat. It was the edifice of trust that has been built so painstakingly around the Associated Press label that was destroyed in the flames seeded by his original article. McMurray, who was apparently determined to find unwanted and abandoned horses, homed in on the reclaimed strip mines of Eastern Kentucky. The area in question offers free grazing and is used by at least one large riding stable to winter their horses.

In this latest story, McMurray demonstrates his mastery of the subject of equine welfare by treating us to a visual image of small "packs" (yes, packs) of (admittedly healthy) horses wandering through the restored strip mines nibbling on the twigs of trees. He says, "The animals are at the center of a fierce dispute over what effect the closing of many of the nation's horse slaughterhouses in recent years has had on the number and fate of unwanted horses."

To add substance to his claims that many of these horses are being abandoned, McMurray cites an ex-county judge named Lewis Warrix. McMurray says Warrix is "among those who suspect the closing of the slaughter plants is contributing to the situation."

Yet, within a paragraph McMurray unwittingly discredits his own source by quoting the judge as saying, "They were just bringing them up and turning them loose - blind and crippled and whatever." The problem with this statement is that it is illegal to transport a blind or crippled horse to slaughter and thus Warrix's observation belies his own conclusion that a lack of slaughter (yet to occur) was to blame for the supposed abandonment in the first place!

Unfortunately, McMurray's latest article did not get the explosive coverage of his original exposé.

It was pushed aside by the news that horse slaughter in America was indeed finally being ended by a federal court. The court ruled the USDA was using an illegal program to fund the inspection of slaughtered horses. On Thursday, March 29, 2007, no horses were slaughtered in the United States. But the issue isn't settled as horses are still being exported in the thousands to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

With luck, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R..503) will soon pass into law and American horses will be safe from slaughter at last. Only then will we know if slaughter was indeed the "useful service" it has claimed to be.

It would be wonderful if Mr. McMurray would give this new situation four or five years to settle out before he provides us with more of his insightful commentary. Ideally, he could use the intervening time to learn something about the subject.