Battle over ban on horse slaughter pits Congress against federal regulators
Animal rights activists urge legislators to put their foot down on a 2005 bill protecting horses.
In the weeks between hurricane Katrina and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, Congress was bombarded with e-mails, phone calls, and faxes - about horse slaughter.
The reason? The Senate was considering an obscure amendment in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) spending bill that would "end the slaughter of America's horses for human consumption overseas," says cosponsor Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada.
Overwhelmingly supported by the letter writers - and, as it turned out, Congress - the year-long ban gave animal activists one of their biggest victories in more than a decade and hope that a permanent ban was imminent.
But now, as implementation of the ban nears, the USDA has said it will allow horse slaughter to continue, in what opponents say is a blatant end run around the intent of Congress.
Each year, tens of thousands of horses are slaughtered here and sent to the tables of Europe and Japan, where the leaner meat is considered a delicacy.
In 2005, some 85,000 horses were killed at three US slaughterhouses, two of which are in Texas.
The measure signed into law in November by President Bush bars the USDA from paying for inspections of horses before slaughter, starting March 10.
The idea, say supporters, was to force plants to shut down because federal law requires all livestock to be inspected before slaughter.
But the three foreign-owned slaughterhouses say they will pay the inspectors' salaries under a "fee for service" arrangement, similar to the system used for elk and other exotic animals.
The USDA has agreed to allow the $4 million industry to continue under this arrangement. In a letter to members of Congress in late December, its deputy general counsel, James Michael Kelly, wrote that the amendment "does not prevent horse slaughter at all."
That angered many in Congress, and earlier this month, 40 members of the House and Senate wrote Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, demanding that inspections of the horses stop.
"The agency must cease inspection of horses for slaughter. Failure to do so constitutes willful disregard of clear Congressional intent on the part of the USDA," the letter warned. "The agency has absolutely no authority to circumvent a Congressional mandate and effectively rewrite an unambiguous law at the request of the horse-slaughter industry."
Mr. Johanns has not responded to the letter, but the renewed fight has some worried that this type of action by a governmental agency will set a bad precedent.
"People are saying, 'What more do we need to do?' This amendment was passed by Congress and signed by the president, and it's still not done," says Chris Heyde, a policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation in Washington.
He says the depth of the support for banning horse slaughter indicates just how strongly Americans feel about the animal. According to a 2005 study by the American Horse Council in Washington, the majority of the 9.2 million horses in the US are used for recreational purposes.
To horse-slaughter opponents, not only are horses a lot closer to dogs and cats than cattle, but their temperament makes the slaughter process that much more cruel. While cows tend to stand still for the executioner's stun gun, horses - which are much more high-strung - are tougher to render unconscious before they are killed.
Supporters of the USDA's move argue that horses would face a worse fate if slaughter was not an option.
"What are we going to do with these 70,000 to 100,000 horses should this ban go into effect?" says Mark Lutschaunig of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which supports horse slaughter. "Our concern is that these horses won't be cared for properly, will just be left in pastures without the proper medical or nutritional care or, even worse, sent down to Mexico where slaughter is out of the control of the USDA."
But critics say there is no proof that abuse increases when horse slaughter is curtailed. In fact, since California passed a law in 1998 outlawing the transportation of horses out of state for the purposes of slaughter, there has been no increase in abuse or neglect of the animals, according to the Society for Animal Protective Legislation.
"We are not going to go away," says Tom Durfee, who runs the Laughing Horse Sanctuary in Sandy Level, Va., which currently has 35 horses - some of which were found at auctions, some of which were donated, and others that were rescued from horse traders.
"It may take a little longer," says Mr. Durfee, "but we are never going to give up."