On December 22, Congress will have to pass a federal budget for the rest of the fiscal year or face a government shutdown. With the potential passage looming, people are concerned about what the final budget could mean for many issues, like national security and even animal cruelty. That’s right: Animal rights activists, particularly horse advocates, fear that next year’s budget could lead to two scary possibilities: the reopening of slaughterhouses in the United States and the killing of thousands of wild horses.
Horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. have been completely obsolete since 2007, when the last three closed, but they’re not officially banned. (U.S. horses are still exported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.) Rather, Congress has voted nearly every year as part of the federal budget appropriations process to keep the USDA from using taxpayer dollars to inspect horse-slaughtering facilities — and the facilities can’t operate without those inspections.
“In order to operate a slaughter plant in this country and sell the meat from it, you have to have a federal inspector, per the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” Nancy Perry, the senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations, tells Teen Vogue.
Since horse meat isn’t really consumed in the U.S. (even when slaughterhouses did exist here, the meat was being sold to meat markets in other countries), and 80% of Americans are opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption, it’s been largely considered a waste to spend taxpayer dollars on it. The budget vote has successfully blocked spending for the inspections, and thus the reopening of slaughterhouses, every year since 2005 (with the exception of a few gaps, Perry says, but litigation and public outcry kept plants from opening during those times). But now people have cause for concern: Earlier this year, the House Appropriations Committee voted to lift that funding ban from its 2018 budget plan, which they passed in October. The Senate kept the ban in its version of budget, but we still don’t know which side will win out in the final 2018 spending bill.
And then there’s the issue with the country’s wild horses, which roam public lands and are currently protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. “That legislation set up a protective scheme for those animals and acknowledges that they are a part of our living history,” Perry says. “They are an American point of pride and part of our Western landscape and heritage.... That legislation outlines how valuable they are to us, and it indicates that they're not to be slaughtered, they're not to be wantonly killed. They are to be managed properly. And it sets up under the Department of Interior a section called the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of overseeing their management.” But the BLM, she points out, is also responsible for other activities that occur on the land and can lease it out for things like mining, fracking, and cattle ranching — and it’s up to the BLM how to divvy up that shared land.
As the wild horse population has grown over the years, and the BLM has designated more land for other activities, Perry says the agency has removed wild horses from public ranges, rounding them up (often using helicopters) and moving them to fenced-in areas or corrals and putting them up for adoption.
As of March 2017, there were approximately 73,000 wild horses and burros on public lands and approximately 46,000 in BLM “off-range facilities,” which cost the government almost $50 million a year (including the feeding and care of the animals). It’s gotten to a point where the BLM says the number of horses in its care is “unsustainable” and too costly. As a solution, President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal year 2018 budget would allow “the BLM to use the full range of tools identified in the 1971 Act, including humane euthanasia and unrestricted sale of certain excess animals.” While those tactics are indeed a part of the 1971 law, euthanasia and unrestricted sale (meaning horses can be sold to buyers who intend to have them slaughtered for commercial purposes, and that buyers who perhaps have too many horses or a history of mistreatment won't be screened) have long been blocked by Congress’s annual appropriations bill. Now, though, that could change. “What's happening now is politically, people are starting to get tired of paying for the care of these horses,” Perry says. “And the Trump administration announced in their budget — the first time any president [has] said out loud — ‘We'd like to have all the available tools for managing these horses.’ And what that means...it's really a euphemism for selling those horses to slaughter and/or killing them.”
As with the inspections ban, the House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of scrapping the protections for wild horses and burros, while the Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favor of keeping them.
Of course, as with most issues, this is far more complex than clean government language and budget votes. So let’s back up and look at the whole picture.
Why are horse slaughterhouses so much more controversial than those for other animals?
Horses certainly aren’t the only animals killed for food. And while the killing of animals like cows, pigs, and chickens is controversial in its own right, it’s still happening on a large scale. So what’s different about horses?
Part of it, advocates say, has to do with the history of horses and their relationship with people. “Horse has been man’s companion in helping us to evolve and grow as people from the beginning of time,” Manda Kalimian, founder of CANA Foundation, tells Teen Vogue. She points out that long before the dawn of technology, horses are what allowed people to travel and work. “The horses pulled our carriages and convoys and...how do you think the railroads were built on the tracks?” she says.
Perry also points to the cultural aspect. “This isn't how we imagined horses to be treated in this country,” she says. “Our culture does not support this. Just like we have more dogs and cats than we can find homes for, we don't allow countries that consume dog or cat meat to set up slaughter facilities in our country, nor do we allow those animals to be exported for slaughter in Vietnam, or Korea, or China. So we believe that it's appropriate for our country to protect animals that we have that special relationship with, and that kind of compassion.”
But the issue goes deeper than that, to straight-up animal cruelty, which Perry says starts even before the horses get to the slaughterhouse. Any American horses designated for slaughter (either in another country, which is still legal, or domestically, when the plants existed here) are subjected to long-distance transport, often crammed into trucks with incompatible horses that could lead to fighting en route. “They're loaded onto these massive trucks, in large numbers, because that produces a greater profit,” she says. “They are sent long distances. They can be sent for up to 28 hours at a time, with no food, water, or rest.... You can imagine the manure, and the urine making those metal floors slippery. Horses will fall down, they will trample each other, they will be injured en route. And those are long distances, so it's predictable that there's cruelty in the transport, and there's absolutely predictable cruelty in the slaughter itself.”
Indeed, Perry says, there is no way to humanely slaughter a horse, so any horse slaughter is in violation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. “Humane slaughter requires an animal to be insensible to pain during the butchering process,” Perry says. “And...it's virtually impossible with an animal like a horse.... When you look at a horse and their biology and their physiology, the way they're built, they're really not suited, by temperament, to go through a commercial slaughter process. Of all the animals on this planet, they're one of the most extreme examples of a 'flight' animal. They will respond to noise, to smells, and when they are fearful, they react in a way that is absolutely contrary to what you want if you're going to humanely slaughter an animal through a commercial facility.”
When slaughterhouses did exist in the U.S., Perry says, USDA inspectors “couldn't prevent horses from being repeatedly injured, and even conscious and thrashing while they were hoisted up and bled out, and then dismembered.”
And then there are the health concerns associated with horse meat. “We’re taking animals that weren’t raised for food and putting them into the food system — late in their lives, usually,” Perry says. “That’s a very dangerous form of Russian roulette to be playing with the lives of consumers.” She’s talking about the fact that many horses are given various drugs and medicines and other treatments throughout their lives “that contain chemicals that are not appropriate for use in animals raised for human consumption, per the FDA,” she says. That could mean substances including fly spray, steroids (given to race horses), and a pain medication known as “Bute”, which is toxic to some humans.
Why doesn’t Congress just implement a permanent ban on slaughterhouses, rather than simply voting on inspections spending every year?
Some members of Congress (buoyed by animal rights organizations) are indeed trying and have been for years. Former representative Connie Morella introduced legislation to ban horse slaughter in the U.S. and the transport of horses to other countries for slaughter back in 2002, but it never passed. Since then, Perry says, there has been a continued effort on both sides of the aisle. The latest bill on the table is the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, or the SAFE Act, which was introduced in the House in January 2017 and the Senate in August 2017 and would prohibit the sale and transfer of horse meat as well as the transport of horses (including across country lines) for the purpose of human consumption.
The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support (currently 203 cosponsors in the House and 27 cosponsors in the Senate), but has yet to make it out of committees (like the House Committee on Agriculture) for floor votes. And therein lies the issue, Perry notes. The agriculture committee is “very disinterested in animal welfare legislation,” she says. “They don’t have a history of passing it. They are very beholden to the interests of Big Agriculture.”
The corporate agriculture industry, Perry says, is resistant to banning horse slaughter because many believe it could be a “slippery slope” toward banning other animal meats, like beef. “That seems laughable because the whole argument about horse slaughter is that we're talking about apples and oranges here,” she says. “They're very different things and these animals are not raised for food. The numbers are dramatically lower, and Americans don't consume this product.”
Some people also use the argument (which also applies to wild horses that could soon legally be sold for slaughter) that slaughter prevents the ongoing suffering of old or sick horses, but Perry says that’s not the case. “Horses that are sent to slaughter are not old, and they're not ill, and they're not infirm,” she says. “They tend to be young horses. In fact, the USDA did a survey of horses at the slaughter plants and found that 92.3% of them were in good condition. That makes sense because the kill buyers (someone who buys a horse to send to slaughter) are searching for healthy, well-fleshed animals because that increases their profit.”
And what’s the controversy with proposed “humane euthanasia and unrestricted sales” of wild horses?
Aside from the aforementioned issues with horse slaughter, one big problem animal advocates have is that this all begins with the fact that the government is continuously decreasing the public land available for horses to roam, while granting it to cattle ranchers, and frackers, and miners. “[The horse] habitats keep shrinking,” Kalimian says. “They keep taking away land and leasing it.” And the new budget proposal could lead to a vicious cycle of shrinking horses’ natural habitats, rounding up horses into holding facilities, killing the horses to clear out those facilities, and then starting all over again. “[They are] eradicating and zeroing out populations of horses because they want those lands,” Kalimian says. She points to Wyoming, which has been seeking to remove most wild horses from its land. “They are all about cattle ranching,” she says.
Which brings her to the next issue: “Ranching has a terrible environmental effect,” she says, adding that ranching, along with activities like oil fracking and drilling, contributes to the the destruction of public lands and the greater environmental issue of climate change. “So by standing up for America’s wild horses, which is the correct thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, we are also standing up for our environment and our climate,” Kalimian says.
As for the euthanasia itself, advocates say it’s not so humane. “When we talk about euthanasia, we're not usually talking about going into a pasture with a weapon and shooting those horses from a distance,” Perry says. “That's what they're talking about when they say euthanasia. It wouldn't be [like] when you have to put a dog to sleep and they're sedated and then they go to sleep and then they die and they never feel anything. This would be a horrific, gruesome, brutal way to die and all funded by tax dollars.”
What’s the better solution for wild horses?
Selling and killing horses isn’t the only way to manage the growing wild horse population, advocates say. In fact, the BLM has access to equine fertility control medication, which is administered into the horses by dart and has proven successful at minimizing births. But the BLM isn’t making much use of it, and the continued breeding of horses as a result compounds the aforementioned issue of the animals’ shrinking habitats.
Why? BLM claims the issue is that the fertility control treatment only lasts for one year (Perry notes they’re working on one that will be effective for four years), and that it’s too difficult to “locate and track” the horses, as well as to actually deliver the vaccine. But Susan Roy, the director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, told The Denver Post that BLM could easily bait horses with food or water to administer the darts.
But they’re not using their resources for that. “Last year they used less than 1% of their budget on the immuno-contraceptive work,” Perry says. Rather than use budget dollars for contraception and managing horses on the range, she says, “they’re using it to feed and care for the horses in holding.”
The real issue, Kalimian believes, is that the agency and the White House simply aren’t interested in tackling the issue. “I think, first and foremost, they don’t care anymore,” she says. “They want to be done with this problem. I think they don’t want to...reallocate funding for it.... This current administration’s agenda is not one...that is concerned at all [with] environmental issues.”
Teen Vogue has reached out to the Department of Interior for comment but has not heard back.
What can we do?
While all of this can sound overwhelmingly negative, Kalimian does have hope. “There are a lot of good people in Washington [who] believe in our horses and in our public range land,” she says. “But that is why I believe at this time, we keep pressing that there are solutions, there are humane alternatives to what government is suggesting. We just have to keep pushing to keep reminding them of this and trying to effectuate the ability to use the birth control, [to] try to find some alternatives.”
Perry, too, believes it’s possible to find solutions. In terms of the population management, “we're very actively interested in helping the government with finding a better solution in the way of utilizing this fertility control on land and finding better sanctuary options for those horses,” she says.
As for the SAFE Act, she is hopeful that Congress will really take it on. “I think the support is there,” she says. “I think if we went to the floor in the House or the Senate, we would win handily on this issue. So a lot of it sometimes is just timing and having an issue get attention.”
And that’s where you can help: Contact your representatives as well as the White House and the Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (via phone and online forms) and ask them to include the prohibitions on USDA inspections and BLM management in the federal budget, and encourage them to take action on the SAFE Act. “The message [to your representatives] should be, ‘Please protect our domestic and wild horses from slaughter or killing immediately, and please pass the SAFE Act,’” Perry suggests.
When it comes down to it, “No matter where you live, those horses and that land belong to the American people,” Kalimian says. “What’s right is right, and you must step up and have a voice.”