There are also unconfirmed rumors that horse slaughter plants could reopen in a matter of weeks.
The issue has been cast back into the public spotlight after lawmakers removed language from a federal appropriations act barring the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from funding the inspection of horse slaughter facilities. The language had been in place in the annual appropriations bill since 2006. Congress approved the bill, HR 2112, Nov. 17 and President Barack Obama signed it Nov. 18.
The omission of this language is believed to open up the possibility of the return of horse slaughter plants in the United States, groups say.
With the cattle industry's decline of more than 2 million head from five years ago, it's not outside of the realm of possibilities, says Dave Duquette, president of the United Horsemen, an advocacy group that supports the humane slaughter of horses inside U.S. borders. These processing facilities can be retrofitted for horse slaughter and opened quickly, he explains.
“I think it will probably be in the next 30 to 60 days (that) a plant will be up and running,” Duquette told DVM Newsmagazine Nov. 30.
The absence of the language to ban funding of horse slaughter plants disappeared as quietly as it appeared through the efforts of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) five years ago, Duquette adds. And the issue is quickly gaining renewed attention. The day he spoke with DVM Newsmagazine, Duquette was preparing for two television interviews on the subject, and he received at least 40 requests for interviews. In the course of his 30-minute interview with DVM Newsmagazine, Duquette received four new pieces of hate mail pertaining to the issue.
“It’s been quite a morning,” Duquette says.
The group views the reopening of horse slaughter facilities in the United States as a pro-horse measure, simply because of the welfare concerns posed by neglect and the dangers of horse transport across the U.S. border. He says his group will take an active role in safeguarding the humane treatment of horses destined for slaughter.
“We’re not in it to make money in the horse slaughter business,” he says. “This is for the welfare of horses. The utmost care is going to be taken in these situations.”
Only four states have explicitly banned horse slaughter for human consumption—Illinois, Texas, California and Florida, he says.
“I can tell you that just about every state in between all of those is looking into it,” he says.
“I’m skeptical. We’ll see,” says Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of HSUS, regarding the reopening of horse slaughter plants. “I can’t think of any sensible investor who would put his or her money into horse slaughtering plants.”
But not even the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is speaking out against the return of horse slaughter. In fact, the group says the suspension of domestic horse slaughter caused more suffering for horses, not less. The group says the only ban that would work would be a dual ban on live export and slaughter.
Opponents of horse slaughter say a return of horse slaughter could also cost taxpayers millions of dollars to police the plants for welfare violations, but Duquette claims USDA didn’t lose any inspectors when horse slaughter plant inspections were banned, and it won’t need any more once inspections are needed again.
“It won’t be any different than any other livestock plant. They never got rid of inspectors before, and they don’t have to hire any more now,” Duquette says.
But opponents don’t see the passage of the appropriations bill as the end of the horse slaughter debate.
“We are adamantly opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Horses are not raised as food animals and this is a predatory industry that has a history of inhumane treatment of the animals during transport and slaughter,” Pacelle told DVM Newsmagazine. “Obviously, we are not going away.”
“This is different from authorizing legislation,” continues Pacelle. “This is an annual appropriations bill and we’ve been able to see language inserted in each of the last six years to forbid USDA inspections of horse slaughter plants.”
An earlier version of the appropriations bill included language to ban funding of horse slaughter facility inspections, but a handful of legislators led a charge to remove the language, purportedly influenced by a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  implying that horses may be worse off because of the U.S. horse slaughter ban. Advocates calling for a return of horse slaughter have blamed the ban for an increase in horse abandonment, especially noted at the height of the economic recession.
But Pacelle says the ban had about as much effect on neglect as on slaughter totals.
“I think the GAO report was used by the horse slaughter people to argue for their position,” Pacelle adds.
The GAO report said the number of horses slaughtered in North America hadn’t declined since the last domestic plant closed in 2007. HSUS admits it didn’t win that battle, but has continued to work toward federal legislation that would ban both slaughter and live export for slaughter, Pacelle adds.
Pacelle believes that problems of neglect and abandonment can be more properly attributed to the economy over the last several years than the ban on horse slaughter.
“They can’t say getting rid of slaughter caused cruelty and neglect,” he says. “It’s more because of the economy, not because of the absence or presence of the horse slaughter industry.
HSUS is backing the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (AHSPA) calling for a federal ban on both horse slaughter for human consumption and the exportation of live horses for slaughter. But the bill was assigned to committees months ago, and no new action has been taken.
“It’s at a bit of a standstill. We are adding co-sponsors on a regular basis,” Pacelle says.
Pacelle doubts slaughter plants will open in the wake of HR 2112’s passage, but says if they do, it could be just the impetus needed for the AHSPA.
“If any horse slaughter plant were to open, it would really add vigor to the effort to pass the legislation,” Pacelle says.
Veterinary groups have remained quiet so far on the possible return of horse slaughter. AVMA had not issued a formal statement at press time. Sally Baker, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), says the association doesn’t plan to issue any statement beyond what has already been release regarding the recent GAO report.
This AAEP statement states, “The AAEP believes that horse processing is not the ideal solution for addressing the large number of unwanted horses in the United States. However, if a horse owner is unable or unwilling to provide humane care and no one is able to assume the responsibility, euthanasia in a manner designated as humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association is an acceptable alternative to a life of suffering, inadequate care or abandonment.” The group said at the time that the ban on horse slaughter had caused a number of “unintended consequences.”
“Our association supports the return of funding to the USDA … If Congress pursues the option of banning the processing of U.S. horses without the appropriate funding and infrastructure in place to appropriately care for these animals, this action may only amplify the negative welfare implications for this highly vulnerable population of horses.”