As the days dwindle down to America's race on the first Saturday of May, industry leaders convened at the Equine Advocates' American Equine Summit in Chatham, N.Y., April 27-28, to ensure that one Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, will never be forgotten, and that any American connection to horse slaughter will soon be removed by law – either federal, state or both.
Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner and 1987 Horse of the Year, was slaughtered for meat in Japan in 2002.
There hasn't been a horse slaughtered in the United States since 2007, but, according to Equine Advocates founder and president Susan Wagner, more than 130,000 horses were shipped to Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses from the U.S. in 2010. And there are initiatives in New Mexico and two other states to re-start horse slaughter in America despite polls that show that more than 80% of Americans are against it.
Speakers at the Summit said there has never been more momentum to end horse slaughter in the U.S. permanently because of the public health aspects of horsemeat, which caused a recent scandal in England and in other European countries. Consumers abroad were very alarmed that horsemeat contains residual drugs, such as Butazolidin. “It's dangerous to be consumed,” said Florida State Sen. Joseph Abruzzo.
Why would anyone risk eating contaminated horsemeat?
Ironically, this issue, Abruzzo said, has cattle interests on the same page as those trying to end horse slaughter. “Cattlemen are losing money when horsemeat results in lower sales of beef,” he said.
If there's questionable demand, perhaps the end of horse slaughter, at least in America, is near.
“It's here. It's right around the corner and we're going to get it,” said Victoria McCullough, who is the Chairman of Chesapeake Petroleum and has been lobbying federal officials in Washington with Abruzzo, who won election in 2012 on a platform of animal rights. “My No. 1 issue is protecting animals,” he said. “In Florida now, horse slaughter is illegal and it is a felony for abusing horses.”
McCullough decided to do a little investigative work to challenge horse slaughter proponents who say that the horses sent to slaughter are old. “We bought 313 horses at Sugarcreek (a kill auction in Ohio) last May,” she said. “The average age was three. Then we bought 82 horses at Sugarcreek last Thanksgiving. The average age was four.”
Another argument by horse slaughter advocates is that there would be hundreds of abandoned horses starving to death throughout America. But it's been six years since the last horse was slaughtered in the U.S., and the only numbers increasing are the horses exported to slaughter in Canada and Mexico, and the number of rescue groups willing to make a difference. Just last week, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association announced a new program, Take the Lead, to partner with horse rescues in taking care of race horses no longer able to perform. Finger Lakes already has a similar program.
But, Wagner, whose Equine Advocates Rescue and Sanctuary has given more than 80 rescued or injured equines a new life and a new home, said, “This country is at a crossroads. We need to make sure slaughter doesn't take root here again. New York is one of the avenues for horses to go to slaughter in Canada. We have to stop this.”
New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, the Summit's keynote speaker, and State Sen. Kathy Marchione, are intent on making that happen. They recently co-sponsored a bill in the New York State Legislature that would not only ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption, but also ban the transport of horses to slaughter, effectively blocking their passage to Canada through New York.
“We're proud to be carrying this bill,” he said. “We shouldn't be eating horses and we shouldn't be raising horses to be food.” He even proposed a tax credit for horsemen who bury carcasses and a tax check-off to rescue groups who euthanize horses rather than sending them to slaughter.
Patty Hogan, one of the leading equine surgeons in the country, suggests that veterinarians could establish euthanasia centers as a last resort before sending a horse to slaughter. She testified before Congress against horse slaughter in 2006, even though the American Association of Equine Practitioners supports it. She said she was especially annoyed when the AAEP tried rationalizing its position by calling slaughtering “processing.” “Call it what it is,” she said. “I take real offense at that.”
She, too, believes that health concerns over horsemeat could end horse slaughter. “Our ace in the hole is drug residue,” she said. “I used to work with cattle. There were strict guidelines about feeding them when they're going to slaughter.”
She is one of many speakers who have difficulty understanding how horse slaughter even existed in America. “It really doesn't make any sense to have horses in the food chain,” she said.
Of course, it doesn't reflect positively on horse racing. “You can't have it both ways,” Hogan said. “You can't want the public to love horses and not take care of them when they're done racing.”
Jo Anne Normile, the founder of the rescue organizations CANTER and Saving Baby Equine Charity, put it this way: “These are our athletes. We value our assets before and after the finish line.”
Outside the meeting room where the Summit was held, more than six dozen residents of Equine Advocates were oblivious to the Summit. They were enjoying a beautiful summer-like weekend in their spacious paddocks. Healthy now, they had been rescued from hell. If only Ferdinand had been this lucky.
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