by Josh Peter a published on USA Today
“an estimated 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption…”
FORNEY, Texas — Mike McBarron stepped out of the 96-degree heat and into a shed on his feedlot after loading 37 horses onto a truck. They were headed to Mexico, where they would be slaughtered and shipped around the world for human consumption.
“It’s just a job to me,” McBarron told USA TODAY Sports. “I mean, I don’t attach myself to them. I don’t fall in love with them.”
McBarron, 48, is one of the country’s most prolific “kill buyers,” people who buy horses and sell them to slaughterhouses. They also represent an uncomfortable reality for the horse racing industry.
Over the past decade, an average of more than 600 thoroughbreds a year have died because of racing, according to research by the USA TODAY Network. By contrast, an estimated 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption, according to Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA).
From the racetrack to a dinner plate, it has been said of thoroughbreds that are slaughtered and end up in restaurants and markets throughout Asia and Europe in countries such as China, Japan, Germany and Russia.
“The problem is that the entire industry is a conveyor belt for slaughter,’’ said John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the slaughter of American horses. “They just keep cranking them (out).’’
McBarron, who acknowledged he has bought and sold retired racehorses for slaughter, has sent tens of thousands of horses to slaughter plants and generated millions of dollars in revenue, according to invoices cited in an informal investigation conducted by a nonprofit group called Animals’ Angels. That practice is unlikely to be a popular topic this week at the Breeders’ Cup, which has attracted many of the sport’s top horses and intense scrutiny of the sport.
Santa Anita Park, the Southern California racetrack that on Friday and Saturday will host the annual event, is dealing with the backlash from a string of race-related horse deaths — 36 since December. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office has launched an investigation and, as protesters decry the horse deaths at Santa Anita and elsewhere, PETA has called on states to suspend racing “until real answers are supplied about these deaths and the carnage is ended.”
Meanwhile, without public outcry, American-born thoroughbreds are trucked across the border for slaughter. So far this year, accounting for all breeds, more than 57,000 horses have been shipped for slaughter to Mexico and Canada from the United States, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.
McBarron, who said he’s been in the business of shipping horses to slaughter for 30 years, suggests it’s a public service because he said the horses would otherwise be abandoned.
“Baby, you want to talk about an apocalypse now,” McBarron said, invoking images of cars colliding with horses. “It ain’t like hitting a dog. You hit a horse, it’s maybe 1,300 pounds. It’s like hitting a brick wall.
“The animal lovers, they don’t understand stuff like that.”
Most of the thoroughbreds shipped for slaughter are little known, but not all of them.
Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, likely died in a slaughterhouse, according to a 2003 report published by The Blood-Horse, a weekly news magazine focusing on the thoroughbred industry.
The Blood-Horse reported that Ferdinand, born in Kentucky and later sold to a Japanese breeding farm, likely died in a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002 and probably became steak or pet food.
Outrage reached Capitol Hill.
In 2006, by a vote of 263-146, the House of Representatives passed legislation to not only ban horse slaughter in the U.S. but also ban the transport and export of American horses for slaughter. The bill died in the Senate.
Similar efforts since then have fizzled despite bipartisan support from prominent lawmakers with Vice President Mike Pence voting in favor of horse slaughter prohibition in 2006, when he was an Indiana congressman, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing the same. Nine times legislation to ban horse slaughter has been introduced in Congress, and eight times it has failed to be enacted into law.
John Sweeney, the former Republican congressman from New York who sponsored the House 2006 bill, said he got a firsthand look at the horse slaughter business while traveling with animal rights activists, and he characterized kill buyers as “like the dregs of society.’’
“If the vast majority of people got a look at it, what they were doing, they would be put out of business in a New York minute,’’ Sweeney said. “People would be revolted by it and the rats would all run for the hills.’’
Sweeney said the “agricultural establishment,” including the cattle lobby, has blocked the legislation. (Farmers have said they worry a ban on the slaughter of horses could lead to a ban on the slaughter of other livestock — a so-called “slippery slope.” Ranchers have said slaughter is an important way to protect their land from being overrun by wild horses.)
“It shouldn’t have been controversial (legislation), but you had all of these sort of powerful interests tied to campaign contributions,’’ said Sweeney, who served four terms in Congress.
Yet Sweeney and his allies scored a victory.
In 2006, Congress passed a budget that barred the USDA from using taxpayer funds for inspection at horse slaughter plants, effectively creating a temporary ban on horse slaughter that Congress has renewed with each subsequent federal budget. At about the same time, state law in Texas and Illinois also were used to shut down the last three U.S.-based horse slaughter plants.
While McBarron and the other kill buyers adapted by exporting horses to Mexico and Canada, they also have found new customers — some of the same people who decry horse slaughter, in fact.
Purchasing horses at auctions and private sales, McBarron and other kill buyers post photos of the horses on Facebook and other social media websites and offer potential buyers a chance to save them. The kill buyers can sell the horses to slaughter plants for about 60 cents a pound, according to McBarron, but first try to find online buyers.
“Don’t nobody buy them, then we ship them to slaughter,’’ said McBarron, who also has shipped donkeys and mules for slaughter. “We’re not going to keep them around just to look at them. I mean, we’re in this for a business.”
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