…they sell a majority of the horses “by the pound,” rather than “by the head”
I arrived at the Sugarcreek Livestock Auction in Ohio at about 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 11: a Friday. Friday is when Sugarcreek hosts its weekly horse and tack sale. The auction is one of the major “kill auctions” east of the Mississippi River; many of the horses are purchased and shipped to a slaughterhouse, where their meat is then exported, for human consumption, to markets in Europe and Asia.
Upon arrival, I went to the back of the auction barn. Navigating the overhead walkways, you can see the horses ready for the sale, standing in a variety of pens. Some of the enclosures held up to 30 horses: big horses, small horses, colored horses and plain horses; some horses with halters, some without. There are no descriptions and no names. They were workhorses, recreational horses and sports horses. A majority will now become food animals.
I went to lunch in the cafeteria. I listened to the general chitchat and learned that there were about 200 horses to be sold. The cultural mix of horse dealers, shippers, Amish, kill buyers, rescue folks, and local onlookers was similar to that of other kill auctions. A little after 2 p.m., the main buyers, the dealers and the kill buyers, assembled in the auction ring below the auctioneer and the horse auction began. The owner of the auction house is a kill buyer who ships horses to a slaughterhouse in Masseauville, Quebec.
Horses are herded into the ring, mostly one by one, and bidding is quick; some bids come from outside the ring from the very full gallery, but many come from the buyers within the ring. You have to have a sharp eye to see the bids, but the auctioneer understands his market and knows from where a majority of his bids will come. Baker snaps up about two-thirds of the horses offered; his median price was about $100. I left after 60 horses had been sold.
During last Thanksgiving weekend, things quietly changed for the horses in the United States. President Obama signed a bill that included the removal of defunding language for the U.S.D.A. inspection of horse-slaughter facilities; this language had essentially made horse slaughter for human consumption illegal in the United States.
Currently about 130,000 American horses a year are shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter; Congress has not yet acted on broader antislaughter legislation that would make this practice illegal and end horse slaughter. The removal of the defunding language raises the real potential for slaughterhouses to reopen in the United States; the last slaughterhouse was closed in 2007.
Kill auctions, like Sugarcreek, take place throughout rural North America and serve as a critical clearinghouse for slaughter-bound horses. My experience at Sugarcreek was not dissimilar to experiences at other auctions. I attended OLEX (Ontario Livestock Exchange) on many Tuesdays while I worked at the Woodbine Racetrack in Canada. There they sell a majority of the horses “by the pound,” rather than “by the head.” If you spend enough time studying the buying behavior of kill buyers, as I did at OLEX, you realize that they are no different from buyers at any other market segment for horses; they want the healthiest at the best price point. They pay more, per pound, for a healthy horse, than for an old, sore horse. At the Shipshewana auction, in Northern Indiana, held every Friday, the main kill buyer is a licensed racehorse trainer from Michigan. At Mike’s Horse and Tack sale, in Mira Loma, about an hour east of Los Angeles, I watched a rodeo buyer purchasing horses. He has been under investigation for being suspected of buying horses for slaughter and shipping them to a feedlot in New Mexico, where from there they will head to Mexico. Buying horses for slaughter in California is illegal, but there appears to be little interest in prosecution.
The horse has played an important role in our development as a civilization. I was recently in San Francisco and visited the Wells Fargo museum. The museum illustrates the importance of the horse in the settlement of the West. “War Horse,” the recent Steven Spielberg movie, celebrated the role of the horse in World War I. The movie highlights the transition from the age of the horse to the age of mechanization. It shows compassion for the horse from both sides of the bloody conflict; the “No Man’s Land” scene is both poignant and brilliant.
Despite the horse’s symbiotic relationship with mankind, horse slaughter has developed into an accepted but little-known practice in most states. The public has perhaps been disinterested in the issue because an overwhelming majority of Americans no longer have a direct connection to the horse. The concept of animal agriculture and factory farming, including horse slaughter, is a recent phenomenon.
The horse is unique among domesticated animals; it is the only animal that is a food animal but which is treated as a nonfood animal for a majority of its life.
Emotion and history aside, there is a more pragmatic reason the horse should not be slaughtered. Other livestock are highly regulated in terms of their ingestion of drugs throughout their lives. For the horse, there is no such documentation until the time it becomes a food animal. At that time, for a horse whose meat is destined for the European Union, a form needs to be completed that shows that it has been free of drugs six months before slaughter. Many of these horses are not considered food animals for that six-month period, and even so, there are a number of drugs that if ingested, have no such quarantine period. Phenybutazene (bute) is one such drug. The label on a bottle of bute includes “not to be used in horses intended for food.” The Food and Drug Administration made this statement in 2003: “For animals, phenylbutazone is currently approved only for oral and injectable use in dogs and horses. Use in horses is limited to use in horses not intended for food. There are currently no approved uses of phenylbutazone in food-producing animals.”
Bute is used frequently in horses. In 2009, according to data from The Daily Racing Form, 99 percent of starters in the state of California (7,391 of 7,443) received bute during a prerace regimen. Giving a racehorse bute ahead of the race is only one instance in which a racehorse may receive the drug. And bute is popular among all types of horses, whether a racehorse, pleasure horse or workhorse. It is akin to a human taking aspirin. To presume a horse has not taken bute during its “non-food animal” lifetime is a very dangerous assumption on the part of the food industry.
Spielberg recently described the move to remove the defunding language as “a very sad turn of events.” The equine star of his movie, Joey, is played by a slow racehorse, a horse that could just have easily wound up at Mike’s Horse and Tack sale. A real War Horse, Sergeant Reckless, is listed in Life Magazine’s 100 greatest heroes. ESPN lists three horses in their 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century: Secretariat, Man o’ War and Citation. Horses are the only animal that compete in the Olympic Games. Perhaps it is now time for man to do something for all horses.
- Spread the Word: Members Push for Passage of American Horse Slaughter Act (rtfitchauthor.com)
- Actress Bo Derek joins Sen. Mary Landrieu to push for ban on horse slaughter (rtfitchauthor.com)
- A Stroll Down “Horse Slaughter” Memory Lane (rtfitchauthor.com)