Lawmakers are on a collision course over the emotionally charged issue of horse slaughter.
National Report — The new U.S. Congress and legislators in at least a dozen states are on a collision course over the emotionally charged issue of horse slaughter.
It's shaping up as a states'-rights vs. federal-law battle, and both sides seem to have plenty of supporters — including veterinarians.
While the proposed federal legislation would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption, several state legislatures are advancing resolutions opposing that bill, instructing their delegates to vote against it and in some cases authorizing horse-processing plants, which backers consider one means of dealing with rapidly swelling numbers of abandoned and neglected horses nationwide.
The Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act of 2009 (H.R. 503) charged out of the Congressional gate in January, introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). Referred to committee, it would prohibit horse slaughter in the United States for the purpose of human consumption and impose tough criminal penalties for transporting horses inside and outside U.S. borders for that purpose.
The measure has the backing of prominent animal-welfare groups and animal-rights advocates.
U.S. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, a veterinarian, is a co-sponsor of the Senate version, S. 311. He did not respond to DVM Newsmagazine telephone calls and e-mails through his press office for comment on his rationale in supporting the Senate measure.
State horse-slaughter actions
"Every day that passes means there is more torment and more suffering for America's horses," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who says seeing the bill pass is a top priority for his organization. "We ask leaders in Congress for an up or down vote and passage of this critical legislation."
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners both have taken positions against H.B. 503 as written. Both say it fails to address adequately the long-term welfare of the horses not slaughtered.
Meanwhile, state legislators who recently introduced bills that would open the way for horse-processing plants in their states or resolutions opposing H.R. 503 say they are responding to intense pressure from their constituents.
The nation's last three slaughter plants, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007 under state court rulings.
But Illinois GOP State Rep. James Sacia introduced a bill Feb. 24 that would repeal the law that shut down the former Cavel plant in DeKalb, Ill., which exported horse meat abroad for human consumption.
He's not alone. Lawmakers in at least 11 other states introduced bills that, while varying in means and approach, support horse slaughter and some open the way for processing plants to be built.
The final sticking point might be the phrase "for human consumption." H.R. 503 doesn't address horse slaughter for other purposes. The question for those states considering new plants might be whether those plants could make money processing animals for purposes other than for human consumption.
"Lots of constituents were begging us to do this, saying give us an alternative to what we have now, which is nothing," said North Dakota Rep. Rod Froelich (D), who along with state Sen. Joe Miller (R) is sponsoring a bill authorizing $75,000 for a study to see if a privately owned processing plant would be viable in their state.
In South Dakota, state Sen. Frank Kloucek (D), introduced S.B. 170, which would have allowed up to $1 million in state loans to build a processing plant. The bill died in committee, but only for procedural reasons; members who voted against it said they are not opposed to horse slaughter, so the measure could resurface after some retooling. "I'm getting mail 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 in favor of it, said Kloucek, adding that "it's appalling we don't have horse harvesting in the United States."
In Montana, H.B. 418, sponsored by Rep. Ed Butcher (R), not only would allow private slaughterhouses in the state but also would prohibit state courts from delaying construction once a plant is licensed by the state. The measure cleared the agriculture committee and was sent to the House floor.
Minnesota's S. 133 asks Congress to oppose any federal legislation that interferes with a state's ability to process horses, and a bill in Missouri is worded similarly.
Other states considering legislation that in one way or another supports horse slaughter and/or the building of processing plants include Arkansas, Arizona, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming and Kansas.
On the other hand, New York Assembly Bill 3736 and New Jersey Assembly Bill 551 would specifically prohibit horse slaughter and the sale of horse meat for human consumption in those states.
While there's no such legislative activity in his state, semi-retired veterinarian Richard Kimball, of Burns, Ore., says there's a critical need in his area for some means of handing the growing numbers of abandoned horses he and ranchers see roaming Oregon's southeast corner near the Nevada border. "Everybody's got two or three times the number of horses they had; when they could sell some at $400 or $500 a head, it wasn't too big a deal, but now there's no market at all," Kimball tells DVM Newsmagazine.
He said he, along with some colleagues and ranch owners, have been talking to leaders of the Paiute Indian nation to encourage them to consider a horse-processing plant on tribal lands, which would be exempt from any state or federal regulation. "Another benefit would be to provide some employment for people; we have a 24 percent jobless rate in this region," Kimball says.
Among the strongest advocates for horse slaughter is Rep. Sue Wallis of Wyoming, who along with Rep. Dave Sigdestad of South Dakota co-sponsored a Horse Industry policy resolution that was adopted last December in Atlanta at a meeting of the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL). Essentially the resolution urges Congress to oppose legislation that would restrict the market, transport, processing and export of horses, to recognize the need for humane horse-processing facilities and not to interfere with state efforts to develop such facilities.
"We received an absolute flood of support from literally every crook and cranny of this nation, and from all walks of life," Wallis said, adding that the resolution allows the NCSL staff to lobby Congress.
And lobby is just what Wallis is doing, sending a strongly worded letter to Congress March 16 opposing the Conyers-Burton H.R. 503.
The new House bill is similar to the one that passed the House Judiciary Committee last September but failed to reach a final vote before Congress adjourned. Sponsors say they intend to expedite the legislation in the 2009 Congress and anticipate passage.
The current bill would amend the federal criminal code to impose a fine and/or prison term of up to three years for possessing, shipping, transporting, purchasing, selling, delivering or receiving any horse, horse flesh or carcass with the intent that it be used for human consumption. It would reduce the prison term to one year if the offense involves less than five horses or less than 2,000 pounds of horse flesh or carcass and the offender has no prior conviction for the same offense.
The bill has plenty of backers, including a group called Veterinarians for Equine Welfare, plus the HSUS, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), equine rescue organizations and other animal-welfare and rights groups.
"There are naysayers who claim we should reopen the U.S. plants rather than seek to ban all horse slaughter," said Chris Heyde, AWI deputy director of government and legal affairs, in an AWI news release. "Clearly, they've already forgotten how awful the plants here were."
AWI is lobbying legislators in all the states considering horse-slaughter plants to reject them, and on behalf of the U.S. House bill. A South Dakota legislator said AWI lobbyists "seemed to have gotten our cell-phone numbersomehow."