Horse Slaughter Industry May Be on Its Last Legs

A bipartisan group of activists and lawmakers held demonstrations this week in Washington, pushing for the passage of legislation that would ban the sale or killing of horses for human consumption. The House of Representatives is expected to act on the measure as soon as this week.

Horse slaughtering has been practiced quietly for decades. It's an emotional issue that has passions running high on both sides. About 90,000 horses a year are sent to the slaughterhouse in the United States. There are three horse slaughterhouses still operating here, two in Texas and one in Illinois.

Watch the report on "Nightline" tonight.

Supporters of horse slaughter say the captive-bolt gun used to kill the animals is an acceptable form of euthanasia. They also argue that this is about horse owners having options.

"What is wrong with keeping that as an option to those that believe it is an acceptable option?" asks former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm, now a spokesman for the horse slaughter lobby. "Why take away their private property right of determining the end of the life of their horse, when it is a legally humanely agreed upon [method] by the overwhelming majority of vets and other people that are interested in the life of a horse?"

Opponents like Johnathan Miller, who runs a farm for rescued and retired thoroughbreds, says the problem is with the way it is carried out.

"The way things are going right now they are cruelly transported, they are cruelly destroyed. We are not talking about euthanasia," Miller says, "We are talking about slaughter. There is a difference."

Americans don't eat horse meat. So, except for a small amount that's fed to zoo animals, most of the 20,000 tons of horse meat that's processed here annually is shipped overseas for the dinner tables of Europe and Asia. The anti-horse slaughter movement was galvanized when the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, was killed and eaten in Japan.

Horses have held an iconic place in America's consciousness: They symbolize the American West and our pioneering spirit. Many people believe such magnificent creatures should be euthanized by a veterinarian when they're unwanted, old , or sick.

Others view horses as livestock and argue that owners should be allowed to make back a little of what they've paid to feed and house their horses, by selling them to slaughterhouses.

And, they ask, what would become of those 90,000 unwanted horses every year?

Opponents of the bill say if it is passed, those horses would be trucked across the border to Mexico, where they would be slaughtered without USDA inspectors on hand to oversee the process. Or they will be abandoned by owners and left to starve.

"The icon they are so wanting to preserve, you are going to see thousands of horses end up on a garbage heap," says Stenholm. "I don't think that a majority of Congress thinks that's the best way to end an icon."

Miller advocates either veterinarian-controlled euthanasia for unwanted horses, or rescue farms like his.

"Even if I just rescue 10, which I have, that's 10 horses that have a good life, that otherwise would have had a horrific life and would have been killed in a horrible way," he said.

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