A bill passed by President Barack Obama late last year quietly reinstated funding for the inspection of horse slaughter, ending a five-year de facto ban on the market in the United States.
But despite the change in law, Cal Poly animal science professor and equine specialist Pete Agalos said the university has no plans to introduce horse slaughter into its educational programs.
“I don’t see that ever being part of the curriculum here,” he said. “Never. No way.”
The latest law is part of a hotly debated controversy regarding the slaughter of horses that Agalos said stems from an emotional response attached to the animal.
“What’s the difference between slaughtering a horse and slaughtering a cow? There’s really no difference,” he said. “There’s this personality that we’ve assigned to this animal that makes it hard for us to fathom.”
The government defunded inspections of horse-slaughter plants in 2006, making it illegal to transport the meat across state lines. Since the meat is typically shipped to Europe and Asia for consumption, it virtually destroyed the U.S. market for horse slaughter. But this created what Republican Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska called “unintended consequences.”
The consequences, which Smith referred to in a statement on horse slaughtering, include horses being shipped to Canada and Mexico where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has no jurisdiction.
Agalos said approximately 101,000 horses were legally slaughtered in 2006, when the ban began. But in 2010, nearly 140,000 horses were slaughtered in other countries.
The ban and resulting increase in foreign slaughter created inhumane conditions for the animals in other countries, Agalos said.
“You know the foreign regulations, they’re not being regulated,” he said. “We need to get the USDA involved in all aspects of it so it’s done as humanely as possible.”
Agalos said he also noticed more horse abandonment during the ban. He said farmers and ranchers throughout the western U.S. told him they saw more horses left in the desert by owners who could not afford to care for the animals. Agalos attributed this to the country’s economic difficulties.
“They just take them out and turn them loose,” he said. “For a domesticated horse, that’s just not a humane thing to do. The horse will die.”
Animal science junior Micaela Mellein said the abandonment problem stems from overbreeding by horse owners.
“Breeders need to have a home for horses or face consequences of slaughter,” she said.
The Government Accountability Office made a recommendation to Congress last June, essentially saying the legislature should either begin funding horse slaughter inspections or ban the export of horses for slaughter altogether.
Agalos said he believes the latter would have been impossible to enforce.
“We need to take a realistic approach to this,” he said. “We can’t be so blind and say we can mandate this, and that’s what is going to happen.”
Agalos likened horse exports to current border security problems. He said if the U.S. cannot keep people and drugs from crossing the borders, it would be near impossible to regulate horse crossings.
But before horse slaughter plants will be accepted as non-taboo in the U.S., Agalos said the industry must change its perception among the American public.
Shortly after the ban was lifted, Agalos assigned his equine science students an essay related to the issue. He told them not to take a position on the legalization, but instead create a plan to improve methods used in U.S. slaughtering plants and make the public see it in a more positive light.
Agalos said students who are familiar with the animal industry, such as those who take his classes, are generally in favor of it. Between his equine science and equine behavior modification class, not one student said they were against the new legalization.
“When the news first came out, I actually heard about it on Facebook,” animal science senior Leah Martin said. “A lot of my horse friends were pro-slaughter, just because the alternatives aren’t very nice.”
Animal science senior Joey Mancino works in the meat unit on campus and was also assigned Agalos’ equine science essay. An owner of two horses, Mancino said part of a plan to make it more acceptable is to rebrand the industry.
“There’s something about horses that everyone loves,” Mancino said. “Like every little girl dreams of having a pony, so by saying ‘horse slaughter,’ you’re taking away that dream.”
Having worked with both horses and cattle, Mancino emphasized the difference between the two in his assignment. Horses, he said, cannot be killed in the same way as cattle because they react differently to the slaughter process.
For example, the standard way to kill a cow is to hold its head and shoot it with a captive bolt that renders it unconscious. Though this works for cattle, horses instinctively move their heads when they are constrained. This causes misfiring of the captive bolt, which can be painful for the horse.
There is only one U.S. horse slaughter plant currently in the planning phase, located in Montana. But Agalos expects several to follow, including plants in the Southwest that were operating before the ban.
“There are plants that have been sitting there that I think they’re probably going to try to reopen,” he said.
And that, Agalos said, is fine. Though the idea of slaughter disgusts the self-identified horse lover, he said he wants to make sure the plants are humane and regulated.
“I don’t like slaughtering plants,” he said. “I’ve been in them, but I don’t like it.”
“It’s going to happen, it’s happening throughout the world,” Agalos said. “Why don’t we just control it, and do it correctly?”