September 25, 2006
by Bob Meadows
with Marc Zawel in Washington, D.C.

Horse lovers rally to stop rustlers and ranchers from turning their ponies into food.

Willie Nelson’s love affair with horses steams from a boyhood in Abbot, Texas, where he idolized Roy Rogers and his famous Golden Palomino, Trigger. Nelson has recorded songs about horses, and today keeps 12 on his 600-acre ranch in Spicewood, Texas. So it’s little surprise he can’t imagine eating one. “I love horses,” says Nelson, 73. “To me they’re pets, and you don’t eat your pet.”

In a country where Mr. Ed and Seabiscut are household names, Nelson’s sentiment is widely shared. He is part of a growing number of Americans protesting the slaughter of horses that, they say, are crammed into trucks built for cows and sheep while on their way to the butcher’s block and sometimes against regulations, remain conscious as they’re killed. Many are stolen. Some 40,000 horses go missing each year, and the rustlers who nab them earn an average of $400 for a horse. (An average steer sells for $1,170.) The meat is then sent to countries like Belgium, France and Japan, where it’s sold for chops, burgers and even horsemeat tartare. (In the Netherlands, smoked horsemeat, known as paardenrookvlees, is a popular breakfast treat.) “Horses are part of our cowboy tradition and pioneer spirit,” says food historian Jeanne Freeland-Graves. And yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the industry, says almost 800,000 horses – nearly all of them healthy – have been slaughtered in the last decade.

The crusade to keep Silver off dinner plates received a boost Sept. 7, when the House of Representatives approved the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (AHSPA), which would ban transporting and selling horses for consumption. The bill now goes to the Senate. “The House today took us one giant step closer to halting the barbaric and needless slaughter of American horses for foreign consumers,” says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

AHSPA opponents, which include the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, say slaughtering horses makes economic and environmental sense. They contest it prevents thousands of unwanted animals from being simply abandoned by their owners. They also say tales of inhumane slaughterhouses and cramped compartments are exaggerated. In fact, the USDA reports that violations for illegal conditions have decreased dramatically the last four years, after the agency informed the shippers about offenses and sent out more warning letters.

The trade is profitable; last year horsemeat exports brought in $61 million. Helmut Blume, a veterinarian who was a USDA inspector for 37 years, sold for $300 each two of his own horses, which were suffering from an incurable foot disease, to buyers he knew were sending them to be butchered. “I felt I at least got some of my money back,” says Blume, who has six horses on his 12-acre Salem, Ore., farm. “Horse owning is a business. You want to make a profit.”

But the business has left a trail of broken hearts. On Sky Dutcher’s 13th birthday in 2004, she realized her beloved Arabian-Morgan mix, Cimmarron, had been stolen from the pasture of her Roscie, NY, home. “I loved him,” says Sky wistfully. Within two days police caught the thief: a relative who had sold Cimmarron for $324 to an auction house, which sent him to a slaughterhouse. The man paid restitution but the loss still angers Sky’s father, Dale, 46. “Someone had proven to me that I couldn’t protect my daughter from this type of pain,” he says.

Texas state representative Charlie Howard understands that pain. Twenty years ago someone stole one of his mares. He feared that the horse was sold to a slaughterhouse, inspiring him in 1997 to sponsor state legislation that required inspectors at the plants to check for identifying marks on the animals. But the law isn’t foolproof. In 2003 thieves struck Howard again, stealing three of his Tennessee Walking Horses. This time the culprits were caught, and they admitted selling the horses to a slaughterhouse. “I simply broke down and cried,” he says.

Nelson understands that sometimes horses have to be euthanized, but he would be devastated if one of his animals ended up in a sandwich. “There is a humane way to end a horse’s life, and slaughter is not the way,” he says. “I know there are people who have different opinions of eating horses, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

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