WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #137
FROM PAIN HORSE CONNECTION - FALL 2011
THE USA HORSE SLAUGHTER PROBLEM
The GAO says the closure of U.S. slaughter plants has caused an
increase of horses suffering from abuse, neglect and abandonment.
By TONYA RATLIFF-GARRISON
When Congress stopped funding the federal inspection of horsemeat
in 2006, proponents believed it would eventually end the
slaughter of domestic horses for human consumption. Instead, the
backdoor ban might have backfired.
In a 68-page bipartisan study released in June, the U.S.
Government Accountability Office reports that since policy ended
domestic slaughter in 2007 the market has shifted to Canada and
"From 2006 through 2010, US. horse exports for slaughter
increased by 148 percent to Canada and 660 percent to Mexico,"
said Lisa Shames, the GAO natural resources and environment
director. "As a result, nearly the same number of U.S. horses was
transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010 as was
slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased."
The GAO says the policy has also led to other unplanned results:
* U.S. horses must now travel further to foreign slaughter plants
where U.S. humane protections do not apply.
* A significant increase of horses suffering from neglect and
* A depression of the domestic market for low- to medium-priced
horses by 8 to 21 percent.
"The number of U.S. horses that are purchased for slaughter has
not decreased since domestic slaughter ceased in 2007," Shames
said. "Clearly, the cessation of domestic slaughter has had
unintended consequences, most importantly, perhaps, the decline
in horse welfare in the United States."
In the 1980s, the United States had 16 horse slaughter plants-the
meat was mainly exported for sale in Asia and Europe. By 1990,
with the industry still recovering from the Tax Reform Act of
1986, the number of horses sent to slaughter hit an all-time high
at 345,900 declining steadily as the economy improved and
slaughter plants shut down.
Seven facilities were operating in 1994, and by 2002which had the
lowest slaughter numbers of 42,312-only two plants were left. The
2004 reopening of the DeKalb, Illinois, horse slaughter facility,
which had been damaged by fire set by anti-slaughter arsonists,
increased slaughter numbers further. By 2005, 94,037 U.S. horses
were domestically slaughtered that year.
In 2006-the last full year before the closure of the three U.S.
plants-the number 104,899 horses were slaughtered domestically
while 32,789 U.S. horses were sent for slaughter in Canada and
Mexico for a total of 137,688 horses. In 2010, 137,984 U.S.
horses were sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico, the current
locations of all North American horse slaughtering facilities.
For U.S. horses being sent to slaughter, four principal
destinations exist in Canada and three in Mexico. Many horses are
making that long trip without adequate rest, food and water
inside trailers built for smaller animals.
Although the "Commercial Transportation of Equines to Slaughter"
regulation and program was enacted in 2001, the GAO study found
three issues preventing the US. Department of Agriculture Animal
and Plant Health Inspection Service from carrying out inspections
and protecting the welfare of horses:
1. Delays in issuing a final rule to give APHIS greater oversight
of horses transported for slaughter.
2 Limited staff and funding that complicates the agency's ability
to ensure the completion, return and evaluation of owner/shipper
3. A lack of current, formal agreements with Canadian, Mexican
and border state officials whose cooperation is needed for
Appropriations bills from 2006 to 2010 have prohibited APHIS from
using federal funds to inspect horses being transported for
slaughter. This has tied the hands of the transport program's
compliance officers, who can only inspect the owner/shipper
certificates associated with the shipment of horses and the
conveyance on which the horses are transported. Only while
inspecting these items is the officer allowed to incidentally
observe any potential violations to the transportation
"This makes it difficult for compliance officers to ensure that
horses are transported humanely to slaughter and to collect
information on potential violations that is needed for APHIS to
pursue enforcement action, which can be as high as $5,000 per
horse, per violation," Shame said.
An example given in the GAO report tells of an officer who, while
inspecting a truck carrying horses heading to slaughter, found a
mare in the shipment had given birth to a foal. Because the
regulation requires shippers to verify that horses are not likely
to give birth during shipment, the birth of a foal in transit
represented a potential violation.
"However, because of the prohibition on using funds to inspect
horses, the officer was unable to inspect further to determine
which mare had given birth," Shame said. "Thus, the opportunity
was lost to document a potential violation of the regulation by
Moreover, Shame adds, welfare during transportation has probably
suffered significantly since 2007 because shippers are aware that
transport program officials cannot inspect horses in transit.
Horse welfare in the United States has generally declined since
2007, as evidenced by reports of increased abandonments and more
investigations for abuse and neglect, the GAO study reports.
In Colorado, where data is collected on horse welfare, there has
been a 50 percent increase in investigations for abuse and
neglect in the last four years while in Indiana investigations
have doubled in three years. The Association of Counties also
reports an increasing abandonment problem across the nation.
"State and local governments, tribes and animal welfare
organizations, especially horse rescues, are facing growing
pressures to care for abandoned and neglected horses at a time of
economic recession and tight budgets," Shame said.
Many of the officials interviewed by GAO say that since the end
of domestic slaughter, horse rescue operations in their states
are at, or near, maximum capacity. The Unwanted Horse Coalition
estimates that the nationwide capacity of rescue facilities is
about 6,000 horses.
"Some state veterinarians told us that some rescue organizations
have taken on more horses than they can properly care for,
especially in an economic environment in which donations have
declined," Shame said. "As a result, horses at some of these
organizations' facilities have been seized."
When owners can no longer financially care for their horses, some
decide to turn their horses out to run wild. The Department of
Interior's Bureau of Land Management and some tribal reservations
report seeing an increase of abandoned horses.
"Domesticated horses abandoned on public lands generally have
poor survival prospects," Shame said. "These horses are
unfamiliar with which wild plants are edible and are likely to be
shunned or hurt by wild horses."
Since the closure of U.S. slaughter facilities, horse owners have
fewer options for getting rid of horses they no longer want or
can care for. State veterinarians told the GAO that horse sales
and auctions have decreased since 2007, in part because of not as
many people in the slaughter horse market.
With no slaughter plants in the United States, the number of
commercial shippers has fallen from 110 in 2006 to 50 in 2009.
The increased costs of transporting horses intended for slaughter
to Canada and Mexico is seen as the cause.
Although there are fewer buyers, many horses are still being sent
to auction. The GAO found the Billings, Montana, horse
auction-one of the nation's largest had a large increase in the
percentage of lower-priced horses sold and a general decrease in
"In May 2005, about 25 percent of loose horses-those that
normally end up at slaughter-sold for less than $200 at that
auction," Shame said. "Whereas in May 2010, about 50 percent of
loose horses sold for less than that amount."
To estimate the impact of the domestic slaughter plant closures
on horse prices, the GAO collected price data on more than 12,000
sale transactions from spring 2004 through spring 2010 at three
large horse auctions located in the Western, Southern and Eastern
"Our analysis shows a statistically significant reduction in
average sale price across all price categories after the
cessation of slaughter in 2007," Shame said. "Although it had
little to no impact on relatively high-priced horses, there was a
significant and negative impact on prices for the low- to
When it came to horse breed and type, the GAO results suggest
that Quarter Horses and ponies sold at a premium relative to
"An unexpected result, though, was that other breed types-Paint
Horses, Appaloosas and Thoroughbreds-sold for less or about the
same price as grade horses," Shame said. "This could have been
due to the smaller number of observations compared to other
breeds, such as maybe a horse not looking like a Paint, and that
for certain breeds, such as Appaloosas, there could be a lack of
buyers for these types of horses."
The economic downturn, which started in December 2007, has likely
affected horse prices as well, Shame says. That was taken into
account in the study.
"U.S. horses are generally thought to be luxury goods, and their
ownership is sensitive to upturns and downturns in the general
economy," she said. "But while the GAO estimates the closing of
domestic horse slaughtering facilities negatively affecting
lower- to medium-priced horses by 8 to 21 percent, we estimate
the economic downturn has reduced prices for all horses by 4 to 5
In the conclusion of the study, the GAO had two recommendations
for the members of Congress:
* Reconsider the restrictions on the use of federal funds to
inspect horses for slaughter and the inspection of horse
* Or, instead, consider a permanent ban on domestic horse
slaughter and the export of U.S. horses intended for slaughter to
The GAO also recommends that the USDA issue longdelayed rules to
better protect horses during transport to slaughter and consider
ways to better leverage resources for compliance activities. The
USDA has already agreed to these suggestions.
"The slaughter of horses for any purpose, especially for human
consumption, is a controversial issue in the United States that
stems largely from how horses are viewed, whether from an
historic, work, show, recreation or commodity point of view,"
Shame said. As a result there is tension between federal law
mandating the inspection of horses and annual appropriations acts
prohibiting the use of funds to inspect horses.
"What might be agreed upon, however, is that the number of U.S.
horses for slaughter has not decreased and they must now travel
farther to meet the same end in a foreign country where they are
not protected by U.S. humane laws. It now must be decided what
appropriate action to take to oversee the welfare of horses
intended for slaughter."
Tonga Ratliff f-Garrison is editor of Paint Horse Connection. To
comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be continued with more horse articles