Speakers at Las Vegas conference argue for the revival of U.S. horse slaughter industry
LAS VEGAS — Horses should be slaughtered and processed in the United States and then sold as food to other countries that regularly consume the lean, tender meat, speakers said Wednesday at a conference aimed at reviving the country's unpopular horse processing industry.
Horses, traditionally regarded in the U.S. as companions or distinguished beasts, have been elevated to a position where they mistakenly are no longer treated as livestock ripe for consumption, argued slaughter proponents at the first Summit of the Horse conference.
Not eating the animals, in fact, disregards the food chain's natural cycle that sustains all creatures, said Sue Wallis, vice president of the United Horseman group of Wyoming, which organized the conference.
"It's not intuitive," Wallis said of the country's ban on horse processing.
The consumption of horses has long been taboo in the United States, where cows, pigs and chickens are considered the protein of choice. Only three horse slaughterhouses remained in the country in 2007, when complaints over inhumane slayings and unsafe conditions prompted Congress to effectively ban horse processing.
Animal rights groups claim there is no humane way to slaughter horses because of the animals' shape and sensitivity to smells and sounds. They want Congress to outlaw any transactions that could lead to horse slaughter, including the animals' sale to overseas processing plants.
"The industries that existed never were able to find a way to do it in a humane way," said Keith Bane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the U.S. "They are very distinctive, in tune to sounds and smells and fears. They smell the blood of the other horses being lead to slaughter, and they panic."
But slaughter proponents say animal rights groups are pushing romantic notions of a noble beast that once defined the untamed West. Horses, they say, are no different from lambs, cows, pigs or other animals treated as food.
Proponents hope the summit -- attended by nearly 200 ranchers, breeders and lawmakers -- will draw attention to an untapped economic resource. Reopening horse slaughterhouses, they said, would create jobs and increase the market value of an animal whose sale price has plummeted in recent years.
Horses are now shipped to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered there, a cost-prohibitive expense for many horse owners.
"We want to see horse plants all over the country so you don't have the hassle of these long hauls," said Ed Butcher, a former Montana state legislator. "We are looking at plants that will probably kill 100 horses a day, nothing big."
Conference participants are spending three days discussing humane horse slaughter methods, how to battle animal rights groups and the devastation wrought by uncontrolled populations of wild horses that compete with other species for water and forage.
Temple Grandin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, said shuttering the United States' heavily regulated horse slaughterhouses has allowed inhumane processing factories to flourish in other nations.
Horse meat remains a dietary staple in Japan, China, France, Belgium, German and Mexico. But the United States' stomach for horse meat shrank after World War II, when the consumption of Black Beauty's brethren largely fell out of fashion.
Slaughter advocates claim unwanted horses are aggravating the nation's already overpopulated horse supply.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees more than 38,000 wild horses and burros in 10 western states. Another nearly 38,000 are in holding facilities in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The cost of the federal horse management program rose from about $37 million in 2004 to $66 million in 2010.
The soaring expense is in many ways tied to recent years of economic stress, in which families have been unable or unwilling to adopt wild or abandoned horses as frequently as they did in the past.
Slaughter proponents say the federal ban contributes to the problem because it increases competition for homes by creating more unwanted horses.
Federal officials have banned horse slaughter as a solution, but have been less zealous about taking a stance against the slaying of privately owned horses.
"We are not entertaining the use of slaughterhouses or selling horses for slaughter at all," Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said after addressing the horse conference Tuesday, adding, "I'm not going to speak to private horses or livestock."
Animal rights groups claim overbreeding, not unchecked population control, is to blame for growing numbers of homeless horses.
"Those pushing to wish to profit from the butchering of America's horses must find another way to earn a living," said Suzanne Roy, campaign director of the American Wild Horse Preservation, in an e-mail.
RELATED HORSE NEWS:
-- Cristina Silva, Associated Press
Photo: A horse, tagged with a number, near an Oregon slaughterhouse in 1996. Credit: Don Ryan / Associated Press