Views to a kill: The US horse slaughter debate

News Backgrounder

January 23, 2008

by Lewis Whitehall

The United States is home to 9.2 million horses. Each year, according to the Humane Society, an estimated 950,000 of them die by means other than slaughter.

The fate of the 100,000 or so animals that, until last year, formed the backbone of the country's horse slaughter industry, is a hotly debated political issue in the US.

The fight over the controversial industry has been carried to the highest levels of the American justice system and no clear winner has yet emerged.


Supporters of the slaughter industry argue that it provides a humane way to dispose of unwanted horses. It is a fate more humane than a slow death through starvation or neglect, which supporters argue would be the case if the push for a federal ban on slaughter is successful.
There are two lobbies, the so-called pro-slaughter and anti-slaughter groups.

While parties may argue over whether such terms rightly apply to them, American groups involved in the debate either support a federal law change to ban the slaughter trade, or they oppose it.

Both groups are well organised.

It seems there is little or no middle ground in a gloves-off fight that will ultimately be won or lost in the US legislature.

The horse slaughter trade in the US was processing between 90,000 and 100,000 horses annually, almost all for export for human consumption. Three plants were in operation, in Texas and Illinois.

While anti-slaughter groups have been fighting for a federal ban on the trade, the industry was brought to a halt last year by legal action in both states which saw judges deciding that existing state laws were sufficient to shut down the plants.

Shut they did. And despite legal challenges, they have remained shut.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for the anti-slaughter lobby.

The number of horses now being trucked across borders for slaughter has increased dramatically. Parties agree the horses meet a worse fate at Mexican plants than they would have suffered at the regulated US plants.

The anti-slaughter lobby acknowledges that the situation is unsatisfactory, but argues it is the staunch opposition and so-called stonewalling of pro-slaughter groups which has prevented the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

The Act would not only ban slaughter across the nation, but prohibit the export of horses for the same purpose.

Supporters of the slaughter industry argue that it provides a humane way to dispose of unwanted horses. It is a fate more humane than a slow death through starvation or neglect, which supporters argue would be the case if the push for a federal ban on slaughter is successful.

Animal shelters, they suggest, are already overburdened and the nation simply cannot accommodate 100,000 unwanted horses a year. Some horse owners cannot even afford the cost of euthanizing a horse and properly disposing of its body.


In 1999, the US horse population stood at 5.32 million. There has been an increase of almost 4 million in the last eight years.

Horse slaughter is undeniably an emotive issue, and both sides are more than happy to use strong language in getting its message across. Phrases such as "undeniable national horror", "tsunami of horse abuse" and "animal welfare disaster" come not from the anti-slaughter lobbyists trying to appeal to people's emotions, but from pro-slaughter interests discussing the possible end of slaughter in the United States.

Anti-slaughter groups have already won the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, with polls usually indicating two out of every three US citizens oppose the trade.

One of the highest profile groups opposing the passage of the anti-slaughter legislation is the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which has 86,000 members.

The AVMA says that while some unwanted horses are rehomed, "there are not enough homes for all of these horses". "If there were," it says, "there would be no market for slaughter horses".

"Although there are numerous equine rescue facilities throughout the United States, these facilities simply do not have enough room or resources to accommodate the additional 90,000 to 100,000 horses every year that will no longer be able to be slaughtered in US plants."

Further, the AVMA argues that the total number of unwanted horses is substantially greater than the number going to slaughter.

The AVMA argues it is not a "pro-slaughter" organisation. "Ideally, there would be caring homes for all horses, and there would be no market for the equine slaughter industry.

"The AVMA opposes the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act because it is, quite simply, a bad bill that ignores the real issue - what do we do with all of these unwanted horses? Eliminating an option for their disposition does nothing to solve the problem, it only adds to it."

Opponents of slaughter, the AVMA argues, are spending "millions and millions of dollars lobbying for this bill, and minimal to no money to care for the horses or develop programmes to provide for their housing and care".

"If even some of that money was diverted to providing adequate care and housing for unwanted horses, many of these horses could escape the fate these organizations are pushing so hard to eliminate."

The key to solving the problem doesn't lie in eliminating slaughter, the AVMA argues, it lies in responsible horse ownership.

In one of the few areas where there seems to be some agreement between the groups, the AVMA argues: "If everyone who purchased or bred a horse accepted the responsibility of caring for that horse throughout its entire life, or finding another person to do so if the original owner is unwilling or unable, there would be no more unwanted horses."

It argues that eliminating slaughter will not reduce the number of unwanted horses in the US. "What will happen to these horses when there is no more room at the rescue facilities and no one to buy them?"

A number of groups have declared their opposition to the anti-slaughter bill. Many belong to an organisation called the Horse Welfare Coalition. Slaughter opponents suggest the name is misleading and, with some justification, say the slaughter industry is a key driver of the group.

Similarly, a wide range of animal advocacy organisations have voiced opposition to the slaughter industry, and are determinedly pushing to get the federal ban in place.

Anti-slaughter groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, openly attack the AVMA's stance, accusing the association of spreading misinformation and arguing that the veterinary group is putting industry interests first and not the welfare of horses.


Newspapers have been carrying accounts of auctions offering horses in a poor condition, and the fate awaiting these horses. Anti-slaughter advocate John Holland has described the coverage as coming from "third-rate reporters" pumping out "completely fabricated stories like the ones about horses being abandoned around the country."
The cause of anti-slaughter campaigners has not been helped by drought conditions that have pushed hay prices in some parts of the United States to record levels.

Horses at auctions are reportedly in poorer condition than usual and horse shelters report increasing numbers animals in need of rehoming.

Supporters of the slaughter industry cite both factors as being a consequence of the slaughter ban, although there is scant evidence to suggest that anything other than high feed prices and drought are to blame at this stage.

A large number of newspapers have been carrying accounts of such auctions, and the fate awaiting these horses. Anti-slaughter advocate John Holland has described the coverage as coming from "third-rate reporters" pumping out "completely fabricated stories like the ones about horses being abandoned around the country."

Supporters of a permanent ban on slaughter argue that the majority of Americans do not want their horses ending up on overseas dinner plates.

They say that the captive-bolt guns used to kill the horses at slaughter plants are inhumane, and that the whole process of carting the animals to slaughterhouses is in itself traumatic to the animals, many of which are used to human contact, having been treated throughout life more as companion animals than livestock.

The horses travel much further to slaughter than the likes of beef cattle, often in trucks designed for cattle, not horses. Given that most were not raised for slaughter, some may still be tainted by antibiotics or other drugs, such as the anti-inflammatory painkiller, phenylbutazone, commonly known as "bute".

Anti-slaughter groups argue that the "unwanted horse" is a creation of the pro-slaughter lobby. They also dispute that 90,000 to 100,000 horses are "sent to slaughter" annually.

What the figures actually indicate, they argue, is that so called "kill buyers" - those attending auctions to buy horses for slaughter - are simply prepared to pay more than anyone else attending that particular auction.

Holland argues that the horses at greatest risk of neglect are unlikely to be destined for slaughter plants in any case.

"Since the slaughter industry processes only horses that are in good flesh, and generally under twelve years of age, and since blind horses and horses that cannot support their weight on all four legs are banned from transport, it would seem that the horses being removed from the population through slaughter are not the ones being abused and probably not the ones at highest risk of abuse or neglect."

The United States Department Agriculture reports than 92% of horses taken to the slaughter plants were in good condition.

Holland continues: "The theory that reducing horse slaughter increases abuse and neglect is clearly not supported by the data."

While the numbers going to slaughter appear large, they argue that it is actually only a small percentage (about 1%) of the overall US horse population. Absorbing that number of horses into the general horse population would not be as challenging as slaughter supporters suggest.

Slaughter opponents argue that horses which are aged, frail, dangerous or that simply cannot be rehomed, deserve to be humanely euthanized - not trucked to auctions and on to slaughter plants. Yes, the fate awaiting horses at Mexican slaughter facilities is much worse, but that is because of the opposition being mounted to the passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

The gloves have been off for much of the battle. Some supporters of the slaughter industry suggest some opponents are trying to push a "vegan agenda".

However, there can be no doubting the credentials of some who support the slaughter ban.

Veterinarians for Equine Welfare (VEW) accuse the AVMA of spreading misinformation.

"I submitted a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in response to the AVMA's latest 'fact sheet' on horse slaughter but it was rejected," said Dr Nick Dodman, a co-founder of VEW.

"It is a shame to see a professional organisation work so hard to undermine something such as the horse slaughter ban based on speculation and unsubstantiated information.

"As veterinarians we are bound to a code of ethics to prevent animal suffering, not hinder animal protection measures in order to promote economic interests."

Dr Theo Antikas, another co-founder of VEW, said: "It is time to stop the rhetoric and political backhanded tricks that have been blocking passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. We must all work together for positive change that will help end the suffering of tens of thousands of American horses."

Slaughter opponents claim those backing the industry do so in some cases for financial reasons.

The slaughter industry is profitable and lucrative, they argue, and at least some of the support for the industry stems from this, not through a genuine belief that the slaughter industry provides a humane solution to the problem of unwanted horses.


There has been an increase of almost four million horses in the US in the last eight years. Some anti-slaughter groups have made no secret of their intentions to target the policies of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), which recently publicised its five-millionth registration.
Horse meat is in demand in Europe and prices are high.

The wider issue of horse breeding is not far removed from the debate, with both lobby groups taking positions which do not seem too far apart.

In 1999, the US horse population stood at 5.32 million. There has been an increase of almost 4 million in the last eight years.

Is the US becoming a nation of geriatric horses, or have breeding practices played a part in the substantial increase in numbers?

The AVMA says: "Breeders, horse organisations, and horse owners should all be aware of the possible fates of unwanted horses, and should make a conscious effort to educate themselves and the public about responsible horse ownership."

Some anti-slaughter groups have made no secret of their intentions to target the policies of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), which recently publicised its five-millionth registration.

Anne Russek, the director of media relations for the Virginia Equine Council, described the AQHA as one of the main suppliers to and supporters of the horse slaughter industry and one of the main opponents to the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

"While the AQHA argues it opposes the [Act] because there is a so-called 'unwanted horse problem' it is the main producer of foals in the US - with tens of thousands of new registrations every year - and is actively promoting the mass breeding of more foals.

"This irresponsible breeding programme rewards the bottom feeders of the horse industry such as killer buyers and assorted auction racketeers."

The future is uncertain.

While the slaughter industry in the US is effectively at a standstill because of enforcement of state laws, the industry is unlikely to be resurrected anywhere in the US while the prospect of a federal ban on the trade is still very real.

The passage of a law ending the slaughter trade relies not only on getting the numbers politically, but questions also remain over where it will fit on the legislative calendar.

In the meantime, the campaign on both sides of the slaughter divide continues apace.

And there are no prizes for coming second.