Opinion: Why the Slaughter Transport Bill Is Not Enough (and Ten Steps Toward Healing the Ideology Split)

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Horse carcasses hang in the cooler at Nature Valley Farms in Saskatchewan. Photo from the No Country for Horses documentary produced by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The House Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday favorably passed proposed legislation to ban the slaughter of American horses for human consumption overseas, as well as the export of American horses to other countries for slaughter. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) introduced the bill, H.R. 6598, known as the Conyers-Burton Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2008.

This bill is still a long way from passing into law. It still must be passed by a majority vote of the Representatives, and the Senate must do the same.

The legislation is being opposed by the AVMA, AQHA, and AAEP. These organizations have dug in their heels on the issue of slaughter, or (more precisely) government intervention on the slaughter of animals for meat. I truly don't believe that anyone in those organizations wants to defend the stuffing of dozens of horses into double-decker trailers for long, hot journeys to Mexican slaughterhouses, but politics is forcing them into just that.

This issue continues to split the horse world the same way that abortion is the hot-button issue in the larger political scene. I think we should look at that issue as a model of how derisive an issue can be and work for solutions that prevent further splits and animosity in the horse world.

One thing I know is true: A workable solution will probably never come from a regulation crafted by legislators and lawyers in Washington. But Washington could force the horse industry into a new era of self-awareness and responsibility.

To better understand horse slaughter as a hot-button issue, keep your eye on abortion debates and on the somewhat related issue of puppy mills. Watch how the government is handling both those issues (or not handling them).

Some solutions I support or propose:

1. If the AQHA is against slaughter, it should discourage its members from breeding. Declare a moritorium for one year, say 2010. Close the book on new foal registrations temporarily. Educate owners and breeders that this is for the good of the breed and the US horse market. Supporting both slaughter as a disposal method and breeding as a means to set new registration records is not in the best interest of horse welfare.

2. If the AVMA and AAEP are against slaughter, they should begin massive owner education programs to discourage breeding, particularly of sub-standard mares. Vet clinics should also offer a period during their natural slow seasons twice each year to offer discounted euthanasia and castration services. Vets make money on breeding and foaling, so a simple equation is that more horses owned by fewer clients are good for a clinic's bottom line. A shift in emphasis needs to made to wellness care and preventive medicine for existing horses rather than creating more horses. Vets should begin to offer decision-making seminars or ethical counseling for mare owners. If clients can't pay their bills, should they be breeding more horses?

3. If the humane and welfare organizations are against slaughter, they should work on massive owner education programs to discourage owning a stallion and they should work with the AVMA and AAEP to offer discounted castrations for cash-strapped clients the same way they offered spay/neuter services for dogs and cats.

4. Breed organizations should follow the model used in Europe so that only approved stallions breed mares. Saying that a stud is (for instance) a registered Paint is no guarantee that the stud is a quality animal worthy of passing on its genes. Likewise, the sale of stud colt weanlings and yearlings should be discouraged. Castrate them first.

5. If the US government wants to regulate horse affairs, it can look to taxation of breeding stock. If you want to breed your mare, perhaps a fee needs to be paid that will support some of the many thousands of unwanted horses. Breeding a mare should be a privilege. The government might also look at a moratorium or higher tax on imported horses, particularly mares and stallions, while there is a glut of unwanted horses here. At the same time, ownership of affordable pleasure (non-breeding) horses could be a tax credit, linked to open land preservation.

6. Find an alternative to the bottom rung auctions. The "meat buyers" should keep a database of the horses they acquire and who owned and bred them. At the very least, we should know breed, sex, and age. Make that information public. If 50 percent of slaughter-bound horses are a certain breed, wouldn't that information have be a call to action for a breed registry to reduce new registrations and discourage breeding until over-production stabilizes?

7. The USTA and Jockey Club need to keep track of ex-racehorses. Owners who abandon their horses and do not provide for their retirement should be embarrassed. If an owner stands in a winner's circle accepting a check while last year's campaigner stands in an auction pen, the public should know. If the high bidder at Keeneland sent 50 horses to slaughter last year, it should be known. The racing/betting fan base should know MUCH more about how owners dispose of or provide for their retired stock. Syndicates and partnerships should have a policy about what they do with non-racing stock that is part of their offering. Those who do (and who stick to it) should get publicity for it.

8. Retirement farms and rescue centers should not differentiate between past winners and "just horses". Encouraging donations or adoptions only because a horse has an impressive show or race record is a slippery slope. A horse that has won for its owner should never end up in a retirement or rescue farm, unless the horse arrives with a big donation check. Prospective adopters should not be interested in a horse only because it was a winner.

9. Horse publications should report more objectively on the issues of slaughter and over-breeding and end their cash-cow stallion issues, effective in 2009. Many are not serving their readers by presenting balanced reporting; some are not reporting on this issue at all. They should also discontinue their "bringing up baby" issues that encourage the creation of more cute foals. People who say they are against slaughter need to pressure publishers into more pro-active roles in educating mare and stallion owners about responsible breeding. If a publication persists in encouraging breeding, readers can cancel subscriptions. Cancel event, farm services and other non-breeding ads. Write letters to the editor. Write another one. These steps will get their attention. (Note: I know that Horse Illustrated has already discontinued its breeding edition for this reason; hopefully other publications have as well.) Editors should be advocates for the reader's information needs. A publication that is dependent on stallion ads for revenue needs to balance that reality.

10. Throughout the industry: Create a culture of public information about horse breeders and stallion get. We need more "where are they now" information but also statistics on how breeders of show and race horses dispose of their lower quality weanlings and yearlings and two-year-olds. Report on the number of show and race horses imported into the US each year. Create a culture of peer pressure among horse owners. Give more prizes at shows to horses who are born and bred in the USA and who were rescued, retrained from racing or rehabilitated. Monitor dog and cat breed/show issues and learn from them (and their mistakes). Encourage veterinary research programs and product development that will help injured or older horses rather than funding more research aimed at getting more mares in foal or increasing fertility of past-peak stallions.

And then, encourage everyone you know to get involved in horses or financially adopt a needy horse at a rescue farm. Encourage the press to publicize the work that is being done to help horses, on both sides of the slaughter fence. Re-invent horse ownership as something fun and meaningful to do in life. Become an ambassador for horses.

11. Tear down the fence and let's all go for a ride. Together.

If you like this post, you will also like these three favorite posts recommended by The Jurga Report:
A link to the excellent Retraining of Racehorses video;
The No Country for a Horse documentary;
Admitting There's a "YOU" in Fugly.

? 2008 by Fran Jurga, The Jurga Report: Horse Health Headlines and Equisearch.com. All rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on The Jurga Report on September 24, 2008.

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