TWIN FALLS • Eating horses may not be popular in America, but the U.S. horse-slaughter industry is making a comeback.
A recently passed bill that lifts what amounted to a five-year ban domestic horse slaughter has readied the federal government to resume inspections of U.S. slaughterhouses, should they reopen.
The 2006 ban that cut funding to inspections meant that horse meat slaughtered in the U.S. couldn’t be sold for consumption. With meat that once fed both people overseas and captive predators devalued, domestic slaughterhouses were forced to close. The ban also unintentionally increased the amount of horses shipped across U.S. borders for slaughter. According to a report released by the Governmental Accountability Office, horse exports for slaughter to Canada increased by 148 percent and by 660 percent to Mexico over the past five years.
The increased exports meant that more horses were subjected to neglect and abuse as they moved outside the gaze of U.S. law. Outcry by animal advocacy groups over horses’ treatment across borders contributed to the lifting of the ban.
Responses are varied. In Idaho, many horse trainers and owners are hopeful the ban’s removal will raise the value of horses. At the same time, some horse rescue shelters are worried that the return of the U.S. slaughterhouse as a viable option to get rid of unwanted horses will only increase the amount of unnecessary breeding and irresponsible horse ownership.
Steve Hutchings, a local horse owner and trainer, began collecting unwanted horses from south-central Idaho shortly after the ban was set in place.
Once he picks up a horse, he then tries to improve its health so it can be sold. Hutchings declined to comment if the horses he’s collected have been sold to slaughter buyers.
“I don’t call what I do a rescue shelter. I fatten them up to a point where someone will want them,” he said. “I was tired of driving around and seeing horses starving or abandoned. People are not taking care of their horses and I’m trying to help them out.”
While people don’t want to see horses killed, Twin Falls licensed equine veterinarian Dr. Melinda Roche said sometimes it is the best option for an older or injured animal.
It’s become a monthly routine for the county sheriff’s office to call her to inspect a suspected abused or starving horse, she said.
“I think this bill will improve horse welfare,” she said. “It didn’t stop horse slaughter. It took away the value of the horse. Once people weren’t getting any money from them, the abuse and abandonment went up.”
While more U.S. horses have been in need of rescue from neglect or abuse, that doesn’t justify slaughtering a horse, said Doro Lohmann, founder of Silent Voices Equine Rescue in Ketchum
“Just because the horse doesn’t do what the owner wants it to do isn’t grounds for a slaughterhouse,” she said. “We need to be more responsible. People are used to slaughtering horses as an outlet for when they’re done with them.”
At this point, there are no open horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. However, interest has already been gathering in western states that have high amounts of abandoned horses, said Sue Wallis, vice president of United Horsemen.
Idaho is considered an ideal spot for a slaughterhouse because it is agriculturally based and contains high amounts of unwanted horses, Wallis said.
“There’s a whole network of folks scouting the nation for plants that can process large animals,” she said. “Idaho was being considered, but the locations fell through — but it’s a logical place for one.”