The story behind horse slaughter in America evokes emotional responses from just about everyone. Animal welfare activists, ranchers, government officials, and entertainers have joined the fight ever since the ban on horse slaughter in the United States was lifted back in 2011. Singer-songwriter Willie Nelson has been a champion for horses for most of his life.
He currently has more than 75 horses on his ranch—of which more than half were rescued—directly from auctions where they were going to be sold into slaughter. These aren’t wild horses. These are previously owned horses and some were even show, race, and other working horses.
According to Nelson, horses from the United States are often slaughtered in Canada and Mexico. The meat is then shipped to France, Italy, and Belgium, where people consume horse meat as a delicacy. Nelson is afraid that with the ban lifted, slaughterhouses will open here in the United States and even more horses will be treated inhumanely and at taxpayer expense.
“Americans don't eat horses,” he says. “Horses are not raised as food animals. They are treated with chemicals that render them unsafe for consumption. It’s common knowledge that horse owners will give their horses drugs when they need them.”
One of the more popular drugs is phenylbutazone, commonly known as "bute." It’s an anti-inflammatory drug used on horses that contains carcinogens that are harmful to humans.
Nelson recently teamed up with Shane and Sia Barbi (former Playboy models and animal rights activists who are better known as The Barbi Twins) and Chris Heyde, deputy director of Government and Legal Affairs at Animal Welfare Institute.
According to Heyde, “there is currently no system in the United States to track medications given to horses to ensure that horse meat is safe for human consumption. Many of these horses are sent to auction within hours or days of their last race, virtually ensuring that these toxins are in the horse meat that is sent overseas.”
Wild Versus Domesticated
One of the major areas of confusion is that the public is focusing on wild horses. “Everyone is focusing on the footage of wild horses being cruelly rounded up by the BLM [Bureau of Land Management],” says Shane Barbi. “This issue is about our domestic horses—horses that were race horses, show horses, and work horses. People go to auctions and think they are selling their horses to good people, when they are not. Too many of these horses are sold into slaughter. Many people have no idea that their horse will be slaughtered.”
“Animal Welfare Institute has long exposed the widespread cruelty and dishonesty of the horse slaughter trade,” says Heyde. “Since the lifting of this ban, the federal government could spend its limited fiscal and staffing resources to open new horse slaughter facilities here in the United States. This comes at a time when forced spending cuts are already severely affecting animal welfare and food safety inspections for U.S. meat products.”
Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with Representatives Patrick Meehan, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, and Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, are working in unison to get the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act passed. This bill would ban horse slaughter in the United States, while ensuring American horses are not exported to Canada and Mexico for the same purpose.
The SAFE Act
“We can pass the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which will ban the slaughter of all American horses for the purpose of human consumption while also ensuring they aren’t sent abroad to suffer the same fate,” says Nelson.
Michele C. Hollow writes the pet and wildlife blog Pet News and Views. She writes about pets, wildlife, travel, and interiors for a number of lifestyle publications. She also gives talks on writing, social media, and animal welfare.