People across the world are drawn to the grace and beauty of the horse. The exquisite features, shattering strength and breathtaking athleticism of this animal has made it a model of magnificence for leisure, work and sport for thousands of years.
Much of the evolution of human civilization has revolved around the horse. Right through to the mid 1800s, people used horses for the farming that put food on tables, for transportation of people and products, and for the leisure and sport that filled their downtime. Kings and rulers built their empires on horseback, and horses even went to war. In other words, there was little a horse could not do, and much that couldn’t be done without it.
Today, this is not the case. With the evolution of technology and machinery, the need for horses apart from recreational purposes has largely disappeared. Many people still use horses for sporting, leisure, and companionship, but few aside from the small community of people who breed and own these horses think about what happens to them when they are no longer useful to their owners. Those who do think about it often imagine them living out a happy retirement, grazing amongst a happy herd on lush farmland. Few would imagine that these elegant animals could be impaled, hung, and dragged down the processing line of a horse slaughterhouse.
But this is the reality for thousands of North American horses each year. While some horses change owners numerous times and unintentionally end up in the hands of a ‘kill buyer’, others are purposely sold for slaughter.
This state of affairs has inspired people like former IT professor and anti-horse slaughter advocate Alex Brown to lobby for an end to the killing of these animals.
For Brown, there are more than 3000 reasons to shut the slaughter industry down. That is the number of horses, and counting, that have been saved from the slaughter pipeline by Brown and his followers from the lobby group Alex Brown Racing since 2006.
A man of small stature, Brown doesn’t appear to be the type to move mountains. Thick layers of clothing shield him from the late October chill, his winter-weathered skin fading into the multicultural backdrop of backstretch workers at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack. Upon first impression, 45-year-old Brown is like most other stable employees. He braves the early mornings and progressively more bitter weather to make a living working with horses. A second glance, however, will reveal that the English-born exercise rider has a determined focus, and, where principle is concerned, would be more likely to ascend the Appalachians than to rest on his laurels.
“We (Alex Brown Racing) do a lot of work on the horse slaughter issue, lobbying (and) trying to effect change,” Brown said. “We’re also working within the horse slaughter pipeline, pulling horses out and rescuing them. We’ve raised more than a million dollars, and rescued probably 3100 horses.”
Brown became immersed in the horse slaughter issue following the death of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Bringing an undefeated record to the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of America’s Triple Crown, Barbaro never made it to the finish line: he shattered his right hind leg shortly after leaving the starting gate, and was taken by horse ambulance to the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania to undergo rigorous and dangerous surgery. This started a national rally behind Barbaro, in which Brown played a key role.
Prior to Barbaro’s Triple Crown campaign, Brown had been little more than a small blip on the popular colt’s radar, an underachieving blogger with an interest in horses and social media. But when he began blogging about Barbaro after his Kentucky Derby win, Brown’s popularity grew rapidly. Then, following Barbaro’s injury, readership of his blog skyrocketed as fans swarmed to his web page for information.
Over the next eight months, Brown would continue to provide comprehensive coverage of Barbaro’s recovery. When the celebrated Thoroughbred ultimately succumbed to complications from his injuries in January 2007, his owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, identified the anti-horse slaughter cause as an important issue to them. They suggested fans could take up this cause to channel their grief for Barbaro.
As a result, Brown began researching horse slaughter and gathering others to join the cause through his website, Alexbrownracing.com. Today Brown travels North America, working at different racetracks and managing his website. He has been in Canada for the past two years, working for leading trainer Steve Asmussen and raising awareness for horse slaughter.
Anti-slaughter advocates, mostly grassroots groups, are armed with many reasons why this practice should be banned, most of which revolve around the inhumanity of the executioners and the injustice to the horse. The reality, however, is that horse slaughter is a highly controversial and widely contested issue.
The other side of the argument, armed with strong reasons of its own, is the pro-slaughter community. It is largely comprised of government officials and livestock groups. These people fight for equality across the livestock sector, for property rights, and, for what they interpret as the welfare of unwanted and abused horses, contrary to the anti-slaughter side.
“We make our business with livestock, and we have a level-headed way of looking at animals and how we use them,” said Sue Wallis, a rancher and State of Wyoming Legislature Representative who is against the proposed horse slaughter ban. “We understand that horses were domesticated to be very multiple purpose animals and always have been, in the vast majority of the world, considered an ordinary food animal.”
Both pro and anti slaughter proponents bring a plethora of arguments and tactics to the table, and both are able to appeal to certain audiences as to why their side is right.
In 2007 the last remaining American slaughterhouses, two in Texas and one in Illinois, were closed by state legislation. This has encouraged anti-slaughter groups to shift their efforts to the federal level, in hopes of permanently banning slaughter across the U.S.. In the meantime, pro-slaughter groups have been working to ensure these bills do not pass. They are driven by a fear of growth in the numbers of unwanted horses, which they believe will lead to worse abuse and neglect.
“Without (slaughter), the only low-end horses that have any value at all are those big and healthy enough to be worth trucking to Canada or Mexico,” Wallis said. “So that leaves all those old horses, horses that people can’t afford any longer, (and) horses that are crippled or damaged, with nowhere to go.”
The website Amillionhorses.com, a website documents cases of horse abandonment and neglect in America. The motivation for this site is the belief that if slaughter is banned, abuse will soar, as owners who can no longer dispose of their horses economically also find themselves unable to care for them. The website’s homepage claims that, without slaughter, America will be faced with one million unwanted horses in ten years’ time. This calculation is based on the fact that more than 100,000 horses have gone to slaughter annually in recent years. Wallis says that cases of abuse and neglect have been “horrifically magnified” since the closing of U.S. slaughter houses. “There’s been just an absolute explosion all across the country of abandoned and neglected and starving horses,” she explains. “Out here in the West, they just take them out and dump them in the desert. Back East, they turn them out in state parks, (or) they turn them out on roads and people run into them with their cars.”
Alex Brown, however, argues that the number of horses slaughtered each year far outnumber those that are abused and abandoned. In addition, Brown has seen firsthand that the unwanted horses turned out on the highway are often horses that slaughterhouses would reject anyway. In other words, they have no cash value. They are not sought after by ‘kill buyers’, people paid by slaughter houses to find horses worth slaughtering.
“I go to kill auctions, and the kill buyers want the young healthy horses, and they pay a premium for them,” Brown said. “The kill buyer has a contract with the slaughter house to buy a certain number of horses. They get more money for better looking, healthier horses.” Brown believes that the fact that these unwanted horses that Wallis describes are often not those picked up by kill buyers gives the lie to the pro-slaughter argument that these animals would be ‘saved’ by humane execution .
This view is shared by Simone Netherlands, a natural horse trainer in Arizona.
“I go to all these auctions, and it’s really tough,” Netherlands said. “You have the killer buyers and the horse rescues bidding against each other. That in itself tells you if they [the kill buyers] weren’t there these horses could have gone to good homes.” Netherlands stresses that it is not only rescue facilities that kill buyers are bidding against, but also people looking to buy horses for recreational animals and companions.
Netherlands, who fights horse slaughter under the name Respect 4 Horses (respect4horses.com), suggests that rather than providing a disposal for unwanted horses, the option of slaughter encourages overbreeding and in itself creates the problem of unwanted horses. Where Wallis believes that ending slaughter would create a plethora of abandoned horses, Netherlands insists that banning slaughter would force breeders to upgrade their operations, breeding only the finest animals out of fear they would be stuck with the lifelong care and feeding of inferior ones.
A controversial aspect of the horse slaughter dispute is the fact that horses are legally classified as livestock. The purpose is to allow owners to receive tax incentives to breed them. But this has the unintended effect of grouping horses with stock that is slaughtered for food, such as cows, pigs and chickens. That suits pro-slaughter advocates, who believe any animal raised for profit is ‘livestock’ and should fall under the same blanket term. But anti-slaughter groups see horses as an exception.
“The reality is, horses are different from other livestock,” Brown said. “We train them, they trust us, we give them names, and they compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t matter if they’re tax classified or not. They just [aren’t] livestock.”
Laws classifying horses as livestock also mean that they are, legally, ‘property’. This definition is used with effect by the pro-slaughter side, who argue that horse owners should be allowed to do as they wish with their property.
“Here’s the bottom line: it [banning horse slaughter] is really an imposition on our private property right,” Wallis said. “Telling me that I cannot market my unusable horse for food is denying me the ability to get the residual value in my asset. That’s the same as telling a rental car owner that they can’t market their used cars after so many miles.”
Brown rejects this logic. “The property rights argument is no good. I have restrictions on what I can do with my house, because of (my) Homeowners Association. Just because you own it doesn’t mean you can kill it.”
Brown is, technically, correct that society imposes many limits on property rights. But it’s an abstract argument. Far more potent for the anti-slaughter lobby are the arguments which arise from the manner in which horse killing is done. Groups such as Alex Brown Racing and Netherlands’ Respect 4 Horses argue that the slaughter process is cruel. Netherlands also argues there is no humane way to slaughter a horse.
“The horse slaughter practice is just so atrocious because these people don’t know how to deal with horses,” Netherlands said. “Many horses get beaten in the face because they think it’s easier if they can’t see anymore. They figure this horse is going to die anyway, so what does it matter?”
Brown describes the slaughter process on his website. The main concern is that slaughter is designed for cows, which are much smaller and less flighty than horses. This makes it difficult to ensure the horses are unconscious before they are slaughtered. Many times the captive bolt gun (the most commonly used method in North American slaughterhouses) doesn’t effectively penetrate the horse’s skull, leaving him conscious for portions of the slaughter process. Brown notes that while veterinarian groups such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and the American Veterinary Medial Association (AVMA) have deemed the slaughter process humane, these particular professional groups are pro-slaughter. They do not speak for the many veterinarians who are outspoken in their belief that horse slaughter is inhumane.
Wallis, on the pro-slaughter side, argues that horse slaughter is humane precisely because it is legal, and therefore subject to government oversight. She notes that all livestock are treated the same, and approval by the AAEP and AVMA are indications of safe slaughter practice.
“The slaughter process for horses is exactly the same as it is for all other classes of livestock, and the only methods of killing that can be used are those that are approved by the vets who are experts in that particular species,” Wallis said. She argues that the captive bolt is effective, and that this is apparent in the quality of the resulting meat.
“The captive bolt creates instant insensibility. That’s important not only for veterinary reasons, but for meat quality reasons. If they are wounded or in pain for any length of time before they are insensible, it greatly affects the meat quality because there’s all that adrenaline coursing through the body.”
Whichever side of the slaughter argument one falls on, it is inevitable that the abolishment of horse slaughter would precipitate a major downward market correction in the value of these animals. Wallis argues that this market correction will force owners to turn their horses loose, leading to their death. Meanwhile Brown, while agreeing that there would indeed be a collapse in the value of bottom-end horses, insists that this very collapse would compel breeders to curb the “reckless breeding habits that horse slaughter enables.”
As the fight against horse slaughter marches on, both sides continue to gain momentum. While the pro-slaughter side is generally comprised of individuals and organizations with similar agendas, the anti-slaughter side continues to be challenged by contradictory lobbyists with highly varied agendas. Alex Brown Racing, for example, proposes an end to slaughter, but also supports the sport of horse racing. More extreme organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), propose not only an end to slaughter but also abolishment of horse racing as a sport. In fact, PETA wants to eliminate the entire agricultural sector.
For Brown, this fragmentation in the anti-slaughter lobby has a sad and unfortunate effect. It drives horsemen, many of whom sympathize with the Brown lobby but don’t wish to be associated with PETA and groups like it, over to the pro-slaughter side.
“My focus is to get horsemen behind it,” Brown said. “The way things are structured right now, horsemen are much more apt to believe the pro-slaughter side. The pro slaughter people will say ‘there are all these unwanted horses, we need slaughter. It’s kind of sad but we need it.’ And the horsemen hear that and think ‘it’s probably better that they’re slaughtered than they’re all sick and starving and turned loose. And of course, slaughter is humane. You tell us it’s humane so it must be.’”
Nonetheless, the anti-slaughter movement appears to be gaining momentum, especially through use of the Internet. Social networking tools like Facebook allow people against slaughter to connect and communicate easily, and YouTube lets people broadcast their findings and opinions to the world.
“I do believe with the internet, we might actually be able to end horse slaughter,” Brown asserts.
Like many worldwide phenomena, the Internet can be a blessing and a curse. Wallis sees it as a chink in the armour of the pro-slaughter movement because it attracts the less-informed public.
“There is a great deal of misinformation and manipulated images being spread around. Particularly on the Internet, you will see loads of very graphic horrific stuff that is taken out of context and in some cases may even be completely fabricated,” she said, specifically referencing graphic slaughter videos on YouTube.
Despite the controversial and sometimes discouraging fight, Brown remains steadfast in his anti-slaughter position.
“I know we’re right, and at some point we’re going to get it done,” Brown said. Many will argue that as one horse is saved from the slaughter pipeline, another simply takes his place, allowing the cycle to continue without a moment’s hesitation. Brown acknowledges that this is likely the truth. But it does not deter him from seeing the justice in his work.
“The way I look at this is like the starfish parable: a guy walks up and down the beach all day, finds a starfish on the beach, chucks it back into the sea, sees another starfish on the beach, chucks it back into the sea. Someone comes up to him and says, ‘Why are you spending all your time doing that? You’re not going to stop starfish getting stranded on the beach and dying’. He’s like, ‘Yeah, but for that starfish I chucked back into the sea, it meant the world to him’. That’s the way I justify it. And for that horse, those 3100, it’s pretty cool.”