What's Worse than Horse Slaughter?

When it comes to government action, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


When it comes to government action, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Hold down gasoline prices to help motorists, and you create shortages. Punish landlords to protect tenants, and apartments get harder to find. Invade Iraq to spread freedom, and you get civil war.

Likewise, a change that may look harmful can serve benevolent purposes. Take the law just signed in Oklahoma to legalize the slaughter of horses for food. Counterintuitive though it may be, it will probably work to the ultimate benefit of horses.

Starting in 2006, Congress tried to end the killing of horses in the United States for meat by barring funds for federal inspection of the facilities where they were processed. The following year, Texas and Illinois forced the closing of the last plants doing this sort of work.

@Doug88888 / photo on flickr

The motivating sentiments were obvious. Americans have had a longstanding romance with horses, even if most of us never ride. We don't eat them, and we don't understand foreigners who do -- I'm looking at you, France. We prefer that these noble beasts be treated with respect and affection. Killing them for the platter is as repugnant as dining on roast beagle.

But improving the welfare of these animals is not as easy as passing laws. By effectively outlawing slaughterhouses, our governments actually induced more mistreatment of horses.

How so? Horses don't live forever, and they rarely have the luxury of expiring in their sleep, surrounded by their loved ones. When one is old or injured or ill-tempered, the proprietor may not want the expense of feeding, housing and medicating it.

Owners can turn their livestock over to horse rescue operations, which will take care of them. But these services have trouble keeping up with the need. Horses can also be professionally euthanized, but that can cost upward of $200 each, not to mention more hundreds to dispose of the carcass.

Selling the beasts at auction -- often to buyers who will send them to slaughter -- used to be an option, allowing owners to turn a cost into a few hundred dollars in income. But the demise of slaughterhouses reduced the demand for low-quality horses, cutting the price sellers could get.

It would be nice if owners would either keep their old nags or have them put down. But that isn't always how things go. Horses are still being sold to be converted to table fare.

The number of horses destined for this fate, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, was about the same in 2010 as it was before the ban. It's just that the slaughterhouses are now in Mexico or Canada, which still allow them.

What difference did the ban make? In 2006, the average horse traveled 550 miles on its way to the last corral. Today, it can expect to journey 753 miles -- an increase of 203 miles. As GAO put it, "Horses are traveling farther to meet the same end in foreign horse-slaughtering facilities where U.S. humane slaughtering protections do not apply."

The horses spared this fate are not necessarily luckier. When 17 state veterinarians were polled on horse welfare, all said it's gotten worse since the slaughter ban. According to the National Association of Counties, the number of abandoned horses has risen -- just as opponents warned it would. If an owner can't sell the horse for a decent sum and lacks the money to have it euthanized, he may leave it somewhere to meet death by starvation, disease or predators.

The Humane Society of the United States -- which, for the record, does invaluable work to make factory farms more humane -- wants to solve the problem by banning the export of live horses to become food. But that would only promote more neglect and abandonment. Domestic processing, subject to strong anti-cruelty laws, would offer a better outcome.

Rescue operations would be a more congenial answer, but they can't do enough. They currently care for only about 6,000 horses nationwide, and most are at capacity. They couldn't possibly accommodate the 166,000 shipped for slaughter each year. Those unwanted animals have to go somewhere.

That's why it made sense for Congress to restore funds for inspecting horse slaughterhouses and for Oklahoma to allow them. It was always apparent the ban was bad for owners. Now we know it's no favor to horses.