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Commentary: Will reinstating horse slaughter in the U.S. improve horse welfare?

Horses are suffering horrific animal welfare issues and rangeland is being irreversibly damaged in the aftermath of legislation that prohibits horse slaughter for human consumption.

By Courtney L. Daigle

It is in the best interest of the horse to reinstate horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States.

Here’s why: Abolition of horse slaughter in the United States for human consumption has eliminated one of the management tools needed to provide horses with good welfare. This legislative action has created an unwanted horse problem, and may result in horses being abandoned, abused, or neglected. 

Horse owners have fewer options to dispose of horses that are no longer wanted because they are old, sick, unmanageable, or fail to meet expectations. Wildlife managers can no longer use horse slaughter as a means of non-native species population control and has resulted in overpopulation of feral horses that are damaging the ecosystem – to their own detriment. 

Horse slaughter for human consumption is practiced in Canada and Mexico. The 150,000 horses per year that are sent to slaughter from the U.S. face welfare challenges including long transportation durations, transportation that is not under APHIS oversight, and slaughter outside of USDA jurisdiction. 

Re-instating horse slaughter for human consumption would provide benefits to the U.S. economy, environment, horse owners, population managers, and most importantly, the horses.

Horse slaughter is big business

Horse slaughter occurs worldwide, and horse meat is traded globally. In 2013, 4.7 million horses were slaughtered to produce 1.6 billion pounds of meat, with China slaughtering the most at 1.6 million horses. 

This protein supply annually generates U.S. $1 billion in imports and exports combined. The largest importers of horsemeat are Italy (22.2%), Belgium (21.3%), Russia (14.4%) and France (14.3%) with the largest exporters including Belgium (16.8%), Argentina (14.0%), Canada (12.5%), Mexico (12.3%) and Poland (9.5%). 

Most horse meat consumption occurs within the country of origin. Domestically, there is a demand for horsemeat from zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, as large carnivores require a diet of high-quality protein that is easily provided with horsemeat. Annually, 10-12% of the horse population dies or is euthanized and 1-2% of the population was sent to slaughter prior to 2007, with most of the U.S.-sourced horsemeat exported to Europe.

But the economics pale in comparison to the animal welfare and environmental disaster the U.S. has created. Feral horse and burrow herds in the western U.S. are overpopulated by 158%, and the costs required to care for these excess animals have risen 5.5% per year across the past eight years. 

The Trump administration has approved the sale of wild-caught horses for slaughter and cut $10 million from the budget, with these cuts targeted at reducing animal husbandry costs. However, funds are not allocated in USDA’s Food Satety Inspection Service (FSIS) budget to provide USDA inspection of horse slaughter.

This legislative action has reignited the conversation surrounding horse slaughter, animal welfare and land management, and suggests that reinstating horse slaughter for human consumption is needed.

Ecosystem damage and population control

Culling is a common wildlife management practice employed to control animal populations with the goal of maintaining a healthy ecosystem and animal population. This management practice is needed for horses in the U.S.

Horses are not native to North America and were introduced in 1519. There are 81,951 total feral horses and burros living on 40,000 square miles across 10 western U.S. states (Figure 1).  These animals are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and part of responsible land management is population control. 

The BLM will regularly adopt horses to private owners. However, this is not a sustainable solution. 

Figure 1 Wild horse population.JPG

Figure 1.JPG

Currently, there are 9 million unwanted horses in the U.S., adoption rates are at a record low, and horse populations – without population control – will naturally double every four years.  This overpopulation compromises horse welfare—competition for food and water causing horses to die of starvation—and has resulted in irreversible damage to western rangelands, a scenario that mirrors the damages caused by feral hogs in the southern U.S

Alternative population control methods (e.g., birth control) are difficult to administer to wild animals and are only effective for 12 months. Animals must be either caught and processed or shot with a dart gun on an annual basis for birth control to be effective. 

This process is stressful for the animal, influences natural selection processes, and is unrealistic to implement. These ethical and logistical challenges make alternative population control methods not a pragmatic option. 

Therefore, if horse population management is to be conducted using a scientifically supported, economically viable, and professionally executed manner, we must begin to embrace horse slaughter.  

Horse euthanasia without slaughter is costly and complicated

The three AVMA approved methods of humane euthanasia for horses include: 1) penetrating captive bolt, 2) gunshot, and 3) chemical euthanasia, with pentobarbital or a pentobarbital combination. Chemical euthanasia is cost prohibitive, highly variable in efficacy, and carcass disposal presents environmental contamination and wildlife poisoning risks. Animals under stress are not as receptive to euthanasia agents, and approximately 30% of horses do not respond well to chemical euthanasia. 

Penetrating captive bolt or gunshot presents the best choice for humane horse euthanasia, indicating that horse slaughter is a humane, sustainable, and logical solution for carcass disposal.

The issue is not how animals are slaughtered, but which animals are slaughtered.

Horse slaughter mirrors cattle slaughter. In American culture, horses are considered pets, therefore, many cannot fathom using horses for meat. However, humans have domesticated a handful of species across the animal kingdom, partly because they are efficient sources of human-edible, high-quality protein.

These species were selected for meat production because they were efficient and easy to manage, not because of their charisma – or lack thereof. For example, if giraffes were the most efficient ruminant, then we would have feedyards filled with giraffes instead of cattle.

Yet, with horses in the U.S., the charismatic nature and history of the human-animal relationship with this creature has trumped logic and pragmatism. The belief that killing horses for human consumption is wrong has changed policy, generated unintentional consequences that challenge animal welfare, and limited the tools available to manage this species. 

Horse slaughter for human consumption should be reinstated in the U.S. because this change in policy will benefit the economy, the environment, the horse managers, and most importantly, the horses themselves.

Courtney L. Daigle, Ph.D., works in the Animal Behavior & Welfare Laboratory, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University. These opinions are her own.

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