Horse slaughter is back on the table. What amounted to a congressional ban against the practice ended when the 2011 Agriculture Appropriations bill reinstated federal funding for inspecting horses before they're sent to a slaughterhouse.
It's hard to know what will happen next. The Bureau of Land Management's advisory board overseeing free-ranging horses and burros has been stacked with pro-slaughter ranching advocates who are only thinly disguised as neutral citizens. One recently appointed member advocates for commercial slaughter as a management strategy for wild horses.
The board is pro-slaughter because that is all the BLM has ever been, ever since the days when it helped round up wild horses for Rin Tin Tin's dog bowl in the 1920s. The federal agency has long backed the interests of the ranching, recreation, development and dog-food industries, despite running a few adoption programs in an attempt to pacify annoying horsey lovers like me.
For those who would argue that the BLM is at least trying to help wild horseseven by sending them to slaughter for their own goodI ask, Since when have Americans set the bar so low? How can we possibly find it acceptable to house over 34,000 horses, more than half of the American wild horse population, in BLM holding pens to await an uncertain fate that is likely to end in slaughter? And why did it take a lawsuit before Laura Leigh, reporter for Horseback Magazine, could gain access to the BLM's wild horse roundups? When the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor this year, it said that "an open government has been the hallmark of our democracy since our nation's founding."
The more disappointing aspect of the debate about slaughtering horses is that it evades the real issues. Why don't we admit that slaughter has never been an effective means to control or manage populations of unwanted, used-up and abandoned horses, whether they're wild or domestic?
There is just no way to make slaughtering equines humane. A bolt-gun is generally shot into an animal's brain to render it unconscious, but this method fails to work with horses. The animals resist the restraint and then panic, filled with fear. Given the combination of the large, terrified animals and the typically unskilled and low-paid workers who are hired to process them on the assembly line, the situation is a set-up for extreme animal cruelty. This is well documented in reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
We should be ashamed of ourselves after all these years for being so ill informed and for being as willing as we are to deliberately close our eyes to the facts. What happened to the pride we once had, back when we saw wild horses as living symbols of our national heritage?
Continuing the same old capture-and-removal routine for wild horses has never worked, while slaughter just gives breeders license to abandon horses at will, permits kill-buyers to thrive, allows racehorse owners to dispose of horses that proved disappointing at the track and enables horse owners who fail to train their animals properly to shirk their responsibility. What's more, it perpetuates a sad history: Thousands of U.S. warhorses went straight into the can after meritorious service, starting with World War I. And even with what amounted to a ban on slaughtering horses in this country, the Government Accounting Office reported that, in 2010 alone, approximately 138,000 U.S. horses were shipped off and slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, where the equine slaughter industry continues unabated.
What makes this shameful is that here in the United States we have the world's first and only dedicated wildlife fertility-control facility, the Science and Conservation Center, in Billings. Led by Jay Kirkpatrick, the world's foremost researcher on fertility control in wild horses, it has used PZPPorcine Zona Pellucidaa reversible, non-hormonal contraceptive with a 24-year history of success all over the country on urban deer and 85 species of zoo animals, including wild bison, and even on 14 different populations of African elephants in the Republic of South Africa. Why we haven't been routinely using PZP here in this country is a mystery.
Contraception works, and it is especially critical for us to implement this approach now that it has finally been approved for use in wild horses by the Environmental Protection Agency. For years, Australia and other countries have cited PZP's lack of "official" U.S. endorsement as a reason for selecting a "by any means necessary" approach to the disposal of wild horses.
Unfortunately, those "any means necessary" include aerial shooting, chasing and rounding up animals from horseback, capture and removal and, of course, slaughtering them for domestic pet food and overseas meat consumption. We have the technology to control overpopulation of wild horses, and it is long past time for us to use it. We should know by now that slaughter is the wrong way to go.
Mae Lee Sun is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the editor of the Wild Horse Journal.