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http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/s ... enDocument
Slaughter of horses in U.S. could resume, in Missouri
By Georgina Gustin
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
SPRINGFIELD, MO. — The lunge whips, the saddles and the bridles are auctioned first. Then the horses are ridden into a small pen, under the glare of overhead lights: A black quarter horse. A gray Missouri fox trotter. A worn, 15-year-old chestnut gelding at the end of his better years.
Buyers and curious onlookers, out for a Friday night, listen to the auctioneer's call.
Come on, he says, this is a really nice little horse.
But the bids aren't climbing. Of the 140 horses sold, the biggest fetch of the night is a paint mare for $1,100, half the amount the horse would have gotten a few years ago.
By midnight, the audience at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center has thinned out, because no one really wants to watch what's coming. "Kill buyers" have waited around for the "loose" horses — the horses that owners have decided are not worth training or have reached the end of their useful lives. They are herded into the ring without riders, some of them with bones poking through their winter coats, others shiny and fat. By 1:30 in the morning, these buyers have placed their bids — in some cases, as low as $30 or $40 — and they load the 40 horses into trailers and haul them off for slaughter in Mexico and Canada.
If one Missouri state lawmaker has his way, though, the final destinations of horses such as these will be much closer.
Earlier this year, state Rep. Jim Viebrock, R-Republic, introduced a bill designed to circumvent federal rules that prevent horse slaughter for human consumption and would enable horse processing facilities to open in Missouri. Viebrock says the legislation would jump-start the ailing equine industry, which pro-slaughter advocates say has been hurt by the recent closure of the country's three horse slaughterhouses.
Viebrock's bill, which has sparked outrage in anti-slaughter circles, has the support of the state's director of agriculture, Jon Hagler, and just about every person at the Springfield auction on this recent Friday night.
Cathy Gripka came to the auction to find a horse or two. Gripka owns a dozen horses at any given time, often saving them from slaughter and keeping them on her farm in Pierce City. But she hopes Viebrock's bill succeeds, because, like many horse lovers, she links the absence of slaughterhouses with a rise in horse abuse and neglect.
On a platform overlooking a corral holding wretched-looking, rail-thin horses, Gripka drags on a cigarette. "This is what happens when you don't have slaughterhouses," she says. "I'd rather see these horses feed somebody than get in this kind of shape."
In 2007, the last U.S. horse slaughter facility, in DeKalb, Ill., closed after the Illinois Legislature passed a law banning horse slaughter for human consumption. A federal appropriations change, enacted in 2005, also said that no federal funds could be used for horse slaughter inspections, in effect banning interstate shipment of slaughter horses and preventing any facilities from reopening.
Since the closure, American kill buyers have instead sent horses to Mexico and Canada, where European-owned processing facilities fulfill steady demand from European and Japanese markets, and where horse meat retails for $10 a pound or more.
Viebrock hopes his bill will restart the industry on American soil, specifically in Missouri, where horse slaughtering has not taken place in decades.
The aim is to provide a funding mechanism that would reimburse the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the required inspections. But, federal authorities say, it remains unclear whether the law would work, because the federal rule mandates that no money be spent on the federal inspections, whether reimbursed or not.
"In theory, you could have a state facility," said Caleb Weaver, a department spokesman. "But you can only ship in the state and couldn't cross borders to go elsewhere."
Still, Viebrock and his supporters are optimistic. They say that it will come down to how the law is interpreted.
"There are a lot of folks around who would like it to go forward," Hagler said.
The influence of the closures on the horse industry is heavily debated. Slaughter advocates say that since slaughterhouses have closed, the number of unwanted and neglected horses has shot up. In contrast, anti-slaughter groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, cite the recession as the dominant factor.
Meanwhile, each side blames the other for the growing cases of horse neglect, even as they debate whether the number of excess horses is growing at all.
A report by the Unwanted Horse Coalition revealed that, of the 27,000 horse owners and industry stakeholders surveyed, 90 percent believe that the number of unwanted horses is rising.
"If you look at what's been happening since these facilities have closed, it's really telling," said Mark Lutschaunig, of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
But the Humane Society of Missouri has not seen a surge in unwanted horses. In fact, equine experts, including Lutschaunig, acknowledge that there is no real way of knowing the exact rise in the number of abandoned horses, or whether the situation is a product of the absence of slaughterhouses.
Any increase could be the consequence of the larger economic picture. With the rising cost of feed and with money stretched thin, many owners are trying to sell their horses, and after failing to find buyers in a flooded market, abandoning the horses or giving them to rescue groups.
Horse traders say opening up slaughterhouses will cure the unwanted horse problem — and boost the struggling equine industry at the same time.
"Having just one or two plants, that would bring up the competitive market for horses that have no occupational value," said one Missouri kill buyer, who asked not to be identified. "It would at least give us a base price to help."
The thinking, at least at the Missouri auctions, is that the entire industry is suffering because there is no market for horse meat.
"These horses are old, they're crippled. Even they used to bring 60 to 70 cents per pound; now it's 15 and 20," said Dwight Glossip, who runs the horse auction in Springfield. "That's what sends down the market on riding horses."
Anti-slaughter advocates don't buy that logic.
"The reason the horses aren't getting any money is because there is no money, slaughter or no slaughter," said Alex Brown, a Pennsylvania-based exercise jockey who runs one of the country's biggest anti-slaughter campaigns. "Slaughter hasn't gone away, so to say that bringing it back here is going to affect the market makes no sense."
Brown pointed to federal figures that show the number of horses being slaughtered in the U.S. before the plant closures — roughly 100,000 — is about the same as the number being shipped to Canada and Mexico.
"The pro-slaughter hypothesis is driven largely by the agendas of those who absolutely support slaughter ... ," Brown said. "They do a very good job of tying the abuse and neglect of horses to the end of domestic slaughter."
Putting their economic arguments aside, pro-slaughter advocates say that closing slaughterhouses in the country not only has pushed the trade over the border, but has caused more horses to suffer.
"It's put horses in a far less humane condition," Hagler said. "It's far more humane to have horses harvested in the United States ... than it is to ship them into another country."
There have been dozens of documented cases of neglect and abuse in horse trailers, where horses were packed in for long distances for shipment to Mexico and Canada, while conditions in some slaughterhouses, particularly in Mexico, are grim, both sides admit.
Pro-slaughter advocates say that provides an argument for bringing horse slaughter back to the United States, where it can be better regulated, while anti-slaughter advocates say reports of inhumane transportation and slaughter are good reason to stop shipping horses for slaughter altogether.
Leslie Maxwell runs a horse rescue farm in Walnut Grove, Mo., and recently launched the NoMoHorseslaughter coalition in response to Viebrock's bill.
She and other anti-slaughter advocates say the problem lies with reckless breeders and with owners who don't understand the demands of ownership, including the cost of euthanasia or burial.
"A lot of backyard breeders have run the industry down," Maxwell said. "It's irresponsible breeders, not the slaughter industry being gone."
Brown and others point out that horses are not bred for food, and most performance horses are given substances that Canadian and European regulatory agencies have banned, or plan to ban, from their food systems.
"The reason the cow is alive is because we want to eat it. The reason the horse is alive is because we want it to win the Kentucky Derby. That's very different," Brown said.
The anti-slaughter movement is backing federal legislation that would ban the shipment of horse meat for human consumption altogether, which would end the trade of American horse meat.
That, they say, would be the ultimate solution.
"We need euthanasia programs," Brown said. "Obviously we need more responsible ownership, and we're only going to get that if we stop slaughter."
Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
-- Mark Twain
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