GAO: Neglect on the rise since closure of domestic equine slaughter operations

GAO: Neglect on the rise since closure of domestic equine slaughter operations

Aug 01, 2011

NATIONAL REPORT — The welfare of some horses has declined since the United States banned equine slaughter plants, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Why? Because financially strained owners are sending horses longer distances to foreign plants that may or may not honor humane slaughter guidelines.

"The prohibition on the use of funds for required inspections has, in effect, banned the slaughter of horses for food in the United States, and, as a consequence, moved this slaughter to other countries where (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) lacks jurisdiction and where the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply," the report states. "Therefore, USDA is less able to ensure the welfare of horses at slaughter. And, as was the case with horses in transit to slaughter, (USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) officials speculated that compliance with the transport regulation has suffered because shippers are aware that the program can no longer leverage the assistance of USDA personnel in slaughtering facilities to ensure the completion of paperwork or note the condition of individual horses in a shipment."

Horses now travel at least 200 miles further to slaughter than they did when domestic facilities were operating, GAO estimates.

Horse exports for slaughter to Canada and Mexico increased by 148 percent and 660 percent, respectively, from 2006 to 2010. While officials estimate a total of about 138,000 horses were sent to slaughter at four facilities in Canada and three in Mexico, the numbers could be higher, GAO says, when you factor in transport of feeder horses. These horses are sent to feedlots in Canada and Mexico to be fattened up and sent to slaughter later. USDA estimates that another 30,000 horses were exported from the United States in 2010 for other purposes than slaughter.

The number of horses slaughtered domestically had decreased from almost 350,000 in 1990 to about 42,000 in 2002, but began rising again in 2003 to reach the estimated 105,000 animals slaughtered at two plants in Texas and Illinois in 2006—the last full year of domestic horse slaughter. Another 33,000 were shipped for slaughter in Canada and Mexico that same year, resulting in about the same total number of American horses slaughtered in 2006 (137,688) and in 2010 (137,984), according to the GAO report.

Regulators, animal-welfare organizations, representatives from the livestock industry and 17 state veterinarians were among those interviewed for the report, and while there is little hard data on horse abandonment, neglect and abuse, the consensus on the state of equine welfare was clear, GAO says.

"Without exception, these officials reported that horse welfare has generally declined as evidenced by a reported increase in cases of horse abandonment and neglect," the report states.

Dr. William Moyer, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), says the unintended consequences were anticipated as outlined in the report some time ago.

"(Slaughter) is obviously not the ideal way to manage this, but by the same token, at least when it was done in that way ... it was done in a very highly regulated system. Once that ended, these horses and their owners are subject to whatever takes place when they cross the border.

"Across the board, those of us that work on horses have seen an increase in neglect and abuse problems and obviously this is one of the consequences. Clearly the down economy is a factor," Moyer says, adding that he thinks equine welfare in the United States is in a state like never before, with horses being dumped on public and tribal lands, or just abandoned.

"Those are happenings, at least in my lifetime, I don't recall seeing or hearing."