There has been no rest for the incredibly, terribly weary. They arrive utterly exhausted, frantically falling over themselves as they dangerously slip on the feces- and urine-slicked floors of the two-tier cattle truck that has brought them here. They are pushed forward with electric prods into the temporary holding pens outside the killing plant. From California to Texas, they arrive bearing the scars of their strenuous 30-hour trek across state lines — from other states, the journey has been nearly 2,000 miles. They arrive injured, emaciated, pregnant. And they have come a long way; all of them: registered thoroughbreds, purebred Arabians, former wild ponies, speckled appaloosas, draft horses, donkeys, old-timers and newly born foals. Not a horse is safe from the Texas massacres.
A number of the horses in the 45-head-packed truck arrive too injured to walk from the transport themselves; like any downed animal arriving at slaughter, they are dragged by their legs to the killing floor. Dead horses are trashed — fallen and trampled victims of transport in a truck designed for animals half their size.
They arrive hungry. Thirsty. Terrified. But it matters not. In just a few hours’ time, they will be forced through kill chutes, shot in their heads with captive-bolt pistols, butchered, packaged, refrigerated and shipped abroad by air and by sea to countries where dining on horse flesh has become a reborn fashion.
These images circle through my mind as I climb to the top rail and survey horses mulling about in the manure and fly-infested confines of the kill pen — their last stop here in California before the long and torturous journey to Texas. These hapless creatures — a mere unwanted hundred or two of the more than 300,000 butchered in the United States — have become statistics in the yearly export trade in horse flesh: the little Arabian, back from her lease to the U.S.-based Mexican “Charro” rodeo, badly banged and bruised; the big white blind mare who circles nervously in her so-called protective enclosure; a rose-grey Arabian with swollen, runny eyes whose “owner” fell from her and then branded her wild, dooming her to the kill pen; the seal-bay thoroughbred filly who walks with an unacceptable twist of her right rear pastern; the cancer-afflicted Welsh pony; the unmanageable pinto stallion who relentlessly expresses his dissatisfaction over this unusual confinement; they’re all here: the emaciated backyard abuse cases, the “excess” racing stock, the lame, the injured, and the ill. Alone, by herself, an appaloosa mare lies colic-stricken beneath the rain-threatening sky. She was unloaded here due to an intestinal stone too painful to pass; if the condition doesn’t kill her, the slaughterman will.
But these unfortunate animals are only the exception, not the rule. Fully trained, young, sound, well-groomed horses pack the dusty, stench-wreaking pens, competing with one another for impoverished food and muddy-colored water.
I spy a young dapple-grey Arabian gelding. A long black forelock falls across his face; the wind picks up his thick mane and tosses it over an arched neck. He dances, paws the ground for a moment and then stares across the roadway to where the mountains meet the sky. A friend climbs onto the fence beside me. “Nice horse,” she whispers, and I agree. He epitomizes the spirit of one of the most noble animals on Earth.
Fifty million years ago, horses began their remarkable evolutionary ascent — but as recently as the Ice Age, human beings have been preying upon them for food, forcing wild herds over cliff edges as a means of slaughter. At the dawn of the New Stone Age — a mere 6,000 years ago — humans found ways to tame this flighty beast, raise it, as it were, for food, hides and then for transportation.
The horse had become the most important animal known to human beings and was believed to be fit for the gods — so much so that it was sacrificed in religious ceremonies, enabling believing consumers of its flesh to acquire its strength. With the advent of Christianity, however, old religious practices were discarded and in 732 A.D., Pope Gregory III passed a papal law forbidding the eating of horses. Before long, only pagans ate horses; overall, consuming its flesh had become taboo.
Instead, we found other uses for its strength and speed.
During World War I, more than one million horses died for the human cause; in one day alone, 7,000 equines poured their innocent blood onto the smokey battlefields. They plowed our fields, transported human belongings as well as human beings, moved covered wagons and stagecoaches across the West, provided the Pony Express and sheriffs’ posses, built our cities, and helped to fight our wars. In short, it was the horse who raised Western civilization.
Today, the Edinburgh School of Agriculture in England has estimated the worldwide horse population at more than 65 million, 10 million of whom live in the United States. Each year alone, horse sports draw 110 million spectators; in dollars, horse care draws: $15 billion; investment and maintenance: $13 billion; and rodeos: $110 million.
And the trade in their flesh is estimated at $150 million. It is a hidden industry, dating back to age-old taboos. Even the “Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food” failed to encourage consumers to develop a taste for horse. This time, the failure was a result of a 20th century move toward respect for animal life and a growing worldwide vegetarian population. Still, the slaughter continues, supplying the demand for pockets of horse-eaters in France, Belgium and Japan. In the United States — though legal — the idea of eating horses is so offensive that kill buyers prefer to be called “horsetraders,” slaughterhouses become “meat packing plants,” and the byproduct of their industry is hidden in pet food cans and, more largely — about 90% of it — is shipped abroad where it remains mostly out of our sight and out of mind.
The dapple-grey Arabian steps forward. He is curious about me and nuzzles my foot. I’m told he’s perfectly trained and has been in the kill pen but a day so he is still healthy and strong, his spirit unbroken. In Texas, he’ll fetch about $800 in horse steaks. For $50 more, to encourage the kill buyer to relinquish him to me instead, I can take him home.
Horses are now being slaughtered for human consumption as rapidly as one every two minutes. Prized for being leaner and healthier than hormone-injected beef or poultry, more than 65 million pounds of horsemeat were exported in 1985; three years ago, the figure had more than doubled; currently, the U.S. ships 125 million pounds to Europe and Japan — where they are divided into steaks, sausage and other cuts — making the U.S. the leading country in the horse flesh trade. The economy, the horse breeding craze, and the market for horse flesh, is fast making horses more valuable dead than alive. At horse and livestock auctions, where most of these horses are sold, animals are being bought anywhere from 50¢ to 90¢ per pound; rendering for pet food only pays about 10¢.
So methods for obtaining slaughter-bound horses vary. There are the auctions where most horse sellers are assuming they’re selling animals to horse lovers — not horse killers. Unlike other livestock auctions, not many suspect that the pound on the hoof is the target.
There are kill buyers, like dog and cat USDA “B” dealers in vivisection circles, who promise a family’s backyard horse a life of leisure on non-existent farms and coax below-market sales, turning profits by herding the animals onto double-decked cattle trucks bound for one of the 11 foreign-owned killing plants in the U.S.
Why the secrecy? “It’s an industry that involves killing pets,” explains Jim Weems, [former] Administrative Vice President of Great Western Meat Co. in Morton, Texas ["Meat's Hidden Industry," Jane Kelly; Meat & Poultry, Sept 1991]. “Of course, horsemeat companies are publicity shy. Our buyers go at these auctions to bid against people who are interested in buying a pony for their child.”
Great Western Meat Co. sends a special chill along my spine. Last year, 60,000 horses were trucked to that slaughterhouse, eight percent of them right here from California — and 60 were dead on arrival, from who knows what. I stroke the dapple-grey Arabian’s dished face and his ears and look into his liquid brown eyes as he shoves his head against me to ask for a scratch. Great Western Meat Co., I think again. That’s exactly where he’s headed.
It isn’t that people haven’t tried to protect horses from slaughter in the United States. Try they do. Still, both federal and state legislation fails. Horses have not yet been officially classed as either companion animals or livestock, so, when in doubt, they fall under guidelines issued by the Department of Agriculture. But, like most livestock animals in the United States, whatever laws exist governing their protection, they are seldom, if ever, enforced.
In a sworn statement before Cook County, State of Illinois, a former employee [name withheld] of Cavel International, a horse slaughtering plant, testified the following:
In July 1991, they were unloading one of the double-decker trucks. A horse got his leg caught in the side of the truck so the driver pulled the rig up and and the horse’s leg popped off. The horse was still living, and it was shaking. [Another employee] popped it on the head and we hung it up and split it open. … Sometimes we would kill near 390, 370 a day. Each double-decker might have up to 100 on it. We would pull off the dead ones with chains. Ones that were down on the truck, we would drag them off with chains and maybe put them in a pen or we might drag them with an automatic chain to the knockbox. Sometimes we would use an electric shocker to try to make them stand. To get them into the knockbox, you have to shock them … sometimes run them up the [anus] with the shocker. … When we killed a pregnant mare, we would take the guts out and I would take the bag out and open it and cut the cord and put it in the trash and sometimes the baby would still be living, and its heart would be beating, but we would put it in the trashcan.
“The horse industry is accountable for these atrocities,” says Linda Moss, co-founder of Equus Horse Rescue organization. “But to stop the slaughter, we need to change the nature of our industry. Breeders are going to have to cut back. Trainers won’t be able to unload horses they’ve wrecked. If we’re going to race horses, we should have more races for slower and older horses. You can’t just throw away these animals; you have to find the right place for them to be” [Ride! Magazine].
Day is turning to dusk and an almost cold wind picks up. I leave the kill pen for the car, hoping to find a sweater or jacket into which I’ll crawl. Along the way, I pass the kill buyer. He’s leaning in the barn’s breezeway, on a payphone, and he smiles a little at me as I walk by. Despite his friendliness, I can tell, by the tone in his voice, that he is irritated. “This isn’t right,” he keeps saying into the receiver. Seems cattle are more on the move this week and he’s having a great deal of trouble finding a truck for this week’s load of horses. He can’t keep the horses here for long; they’re costing him to feed and he has more than enough for one more truckload this month. “This isn’t right,” I hear him say again, and I can’t help but agree with him — from a slightly different perspective.
Still, I find the irony. He’s merely the middleman. He is not the enemy. The enemy is the bigger picture: the breeders of horses, the people who acquire them and then abandon them to any fate.
I pull the collar around me, lean onto the fence again to watch the dapple-grey Arabian. He sees me and shifts his weight; I know he’s going to turn in my direction now, to approach and stand by me, perhaps in his horsey way, to ask me to free him.
I scratch his neck and he loves it, but in the middle of our momentary liberation from the doom around us, headlights shatter the encroaching darkness. I turn my head and watch the truck make its slow journey across the pot-holed dirt driveway. It is coming for him. There are tiny lights along every edge of the trailer, and it is lit up like a Christmas tree. It is empty now, too, but it is a different kind of truck. There is ample room for horses in it, partitioned stalls that separate the animals from each other to prevent injury; there are padded walls and rubber mats on the floors; there is hay and sweet grain in the feed troughs.
The truck stops and Linda Moss gets out. “Is he ready?” she asks. I scratch the dapple-grey Arabian one more time and feel my heart warm. “He’s come to the gate,” I said. “I think he’s ready.”
So was the big, white blind mare. And two of the Charros’ “toys.” Then we squeezed in an Arabian filly just for good measure.
It was nightfall when we arrived at the temporary sanctuary (we’re looking for something permanent). Barn lights shattered the darkness, horses whinnied a welcome, and a volunteer crew emerged to help unload our cargo.
It is a wonderful feeling, a feeling beyond words, to actually remove other living beings from the jaws of death, and — in this case — to prepare them a room of their own with fresh water and alfalfa hay, wood shavings for bedding, and a bucket of sweet grain.
It is a wonderful feeling for the horses, too. The dapple-grey Arabian called to me when I left the barn to observe the outside activities. He knew so soon that I had come to save him. He KNEW it — even before I did, I think. I named him “Shilo” after Neil Diamond’s song, the one he wrote about his only dependable friend. [For more about this horse, read Shilo.]
I thought about my brand new friendship with Shilo — that rare kind of bonding you have only with an animal — as I leaned in the barn’s doorway and watched him grab a bite of alfalfa and molasses then check to see if I was still there. Outside in the lit night, the irony of it all had shadowed us. It is all we can afford: The Equus Horse Rescue Sanctuary is shared by a group of Charro cowboys.
They drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and sit on the fence; they train their rodeo horses in the arena and practice their lassoing techniques. If the cowboys are at all amused or annoyed with us, it’s hard to tell. They feed carrots to the wounded ponies who had once been chased and injured in one of their rodeos; they offer to hold a filly for a volunteer while she medicates her; they unload a bag of grain from the truck bed for us.
I do not understand the human race … and for now that would have to suffice; inside the barn, bedded and fed and groomed, a dozen horses prepare for a long and enriched life that only a few hours earlier had been doomed to the slaughterhouse. For a few, it would be a good night.