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Press Stories 1980-2004
Note: Since this story was published 1 American horse slaughterhouses has closed, Central Nebraska Packing in North Platte, NE.
Prop 6 in CA made the sale of CA horses to slaughter a felony, not a misdemeanor as reported in this article.
This is the first of a two-part investigation into the inhumane slaughter of horses.
By Bill Finley, Daily News Sports Writer
Rescue of a Racehorse
They threw a beloved hero named Secretariat a farewell party, attended by 32,990 people on a crisp autumn afternoon in 1973 at Aqueduct, before sending him off to his Graceland, also known as Claiborne Farm.
The pomp and circumstance included a letter from the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.
For thousands of other thoroughbreds just off the track, those not gifted enough or lucky enough to spend the rest of their natural lives pampered in the splendor of a Kentucky breeding farm, the long goodbye comes in the form of repeated bludgeoning in the skull by a deadbolt gun with a four-inch nail.
That was the beginning of the end last year for an estimated 7,700 thoroughbreds or about one out of every nine horses who raced who were killed in four U.S. slaughterhouses that handle horses for human consumption. The nail stuns them. Then they are shackled, hoisted in the air and their throats are slit before being dismembered and eventually served for dinner in Europe, Asia or Mexico.
It may be a repulsive scenario, but it is also a reality for an industrythat hasn't figured out what to do with the thousands of slow and infirm horses who leave the track every year, worth no more than the value of the meat on their bones.
What is the answer? It is difficult to even figure out what the question is.
Are horses companion animals, deserving of love and care? Are they like dogs and cats, animals most Americans would never slaughter for human consumption? Or are they commodities, no different than slaughter-bound cows and pigs? If some are treated like heroes, why should others be discarded like yesterday's garbage?
"It is humans that brought these horses into the world and we control their every move and their health. They are utterly dependent upon us,"
said Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner and a member of the board of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
"We as humans have an obligation to see that there is a viable alternative for them after they no longer suit the purposes we brought them here for. You have a responsibility to see that a horse's life has a proper outcome."
That, however, is not always as easy as Chenery might make it sound.
"If a horse is no longer useable and has no potential, what else are people supposed to do with it?"
said Arlow Kiehl, who buys horses from auctions before selling them off at a small profit to a slaughterhouse.
"I can't afford to let them run around and just look at them. Where else are they going to go but to slaughter? There are some real tender-hearted people out there and you can't explain this to them. There are some real fruitcakes running around who can't listen to reason."
Around the race track, they call people in Kiehl's business"killers." Once a horse falls into their hands, it's usually over. Kiehl says that he evaluates every horse that makes its way to his Watertown, N.Y. farm. Those which are healthy and useful will be resold, he says, perhaps to riding stables. But most, he admits, wind up being slaughtered.
It is another Monday at the New Holland Sales Stable in Pennsylvania Dutch country and Kiehl is one of about a half dozen "killers" in attendance on this late-November afternoon to buy horses for resale to the slaughterhouses. Horses are sold every Monday at New Holland, one of a handful of rag-tag sales that bear no resemblance to the prestigious events at Keeneland and Saratoga, where future racing prospects can go for millions. Most of the horses aren't even thoroughbreds. They are standardbreds, cross-breds, draft horses. Horsemeat is horsemeat.
Oddly, about the only thing that can save a horse who has fallen this far is its color. The horsemeat industry shies away from grays."Caution must be exercised when buying gray horses or variations of gray horses," reads a notice sent out to horse sellers by Beltex, a Fort Worth, Tex., slaughterhouse.
"All gray horses are inspectedby the USDA for indications of melanoma . . . .Gray horses very often do not pass USDA inspection."
While they may have started out their careers on the country's more prestigious racing circuits, horses who end up at New Holland usually finished their careers at nearby tracks Penn National, Charles Town and Finger Lakes. Middlemen operate at each of those tracks, knowing that there are plenty of owners and trainers eager to rid their barns of horses who can no longer cut it. A soft heart is not a job requirement.
"I just sell horses," said Charles DeHart, who was dealing on this day at New Holland. "Where they go from here is other people's business."
No one cares who the horses are or what they did on the track.All that matters now is their weight. Beltex is currently paying 51 cents a pound for a healthy, good-sized thoroughbred, most of whom weigh about 1,100 pounds. That makes an average horse worth about $561 by the time they reach the end.
Along the way, the middleman and the "killer" each take a small cut over and above the price for which a trainer sells a horse off the track. Kiehl says he expects to make only $40 per horse on the ones purchased at New Holland.
Next is the trip to the slaughterhouse, which, more than any other part of the journey from the winner's circle to the dinner table, has drawn the wrath of animal rights activists. The horses are crammed into trucks, some geared to haul smaller animals such as cows, and herefore too low to allow them to stand properly. They're sometimes driven as far as 1,000 miles with no rest or feed and water breaks, none of which are required by federal regulations.
Some of the horses, lame and infirm, are in no shape to handle such rough travel but they cannot be put down beforehand because the toxins used to euthanize a horse make it unfit for consumption "Fights break out and injuries are frequent," said Jackie McTigue, program spcialist, equine protection division of the Humane Society of the U.S.
"Sometimes the horse doesn't even survive the journey."
No official records are kept regarding what percentage of horses slaughtered are thoroughbreds, but the Humane Society of theUnited States estimates the figure to be 10 percent. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, 77,000 horses were slaughtered in the U.S. in 1997. That's down from an all-time of 315,000 in 1990, when more than 20 equine slaughterhouses operated in this country and an estimated 31,000 thoroughbreds were killed.
Not that horse lovers are necessarily winning. "One of the reasons it is down is because the dollar is so strong," said Geert DeWulf, general plant manager of Kaufman, Texas slaughterhouse Dallas Crown Inc.
"All of our product is going to overseas markets and a strong dollar does not help anyone export American products. The other reason is that there is now more production of horsemeat in other parts of the world."
Dallas Crown, Beltex, Cavel International and Central Nebraska Packing are all that are left. Another, Cavel West in Redmond, Oregon was closed after being bombed July 21, 1997 by a radical animal rights group, the Animal Liberation Front.
Americans may find the thought of eating Black Beauty, Trigger or the $36.40 winner they had las summer at Saratoga repulsive. But some diners in France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Japan have no such qualms. "Retail cuts of horse are similar to those of beef," a Feb. 1997 USDA advisory reads.
"The meat is leaner, slightly sweeter in taste, with a flavor somewhat between that of beef and venison."
And so it happens, and not only to the horse who was just beaten 40 lengths in a $3,000 claimer at Finger Lakes. Racing writer Mike Mullaney uncovered that Exceller, a Grade I winner in both the U.S. and Europe and the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners, ended up in a slaughterhouse in Sweden last year.
"Exceller knew what was going on; he didn't want to be there,"Ann Pagmar, who cared for Exceller for owner Gote Ostlund, told Mullaney, after taking him to the slaughterhouse as per the owner's orders. "Standing with him like that, it made me feel like Judas."
Exceller's demise sent shock waves through the industry and helped raised awareness of the problem, but only marginal progress has been made since his death. It's still a matter of economics. It would take untold millions and thousands of acres of land to take care of each and every unwanted ex-racehorse who comes off the track. The small-time owners, the ones that wind up with the cheap horses at the ends of their careers, say they can't afford it. The ones who can, the wealthy owners and breeders who race for big money with valuable horses, often say it's not their problem. Some racetracks contribute, but the amount of money donated to the various thoroughbred rescue groups, all of whom operate on shoestring budgets, amounts to a fraction of what is bet on a single race at Belmont Park.
"I don't think this industry does enough,"
said Philadelphia Park CEO Hal Handel, among the more generous contributors to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
"This is an important issue and we have to start doing the right thing. I'm not just talking about racetracks, but owners and breeders. Everyone who is involved in this industry has an obligation to the animal. We sell to the public the beauty of the horses and the love that we have for them and how that's a critical element of this sport. We then can't let this happen to these horses."
Cathleen Doyle got tired of hearing the same tired excuses. Teaming up with friends Sherry DeBoer and Sidne Long, Doyle got the first-ever statewide initiative banning the sale of horses for slaughter onto the California ballot this year. It passed overwhelmingly and it is now a felony in California to possess, import or export a horse for the purposes of human consumption. Selling horsemeat is a misdemeanor.
"The people of this state spoke up they don't want horses slaughtered for human consumption," she said.
But Doyle is the first to admit that the new California laws cannot possibly save all of the state's unwanted horses
"What do you do with those horses? It's a no-brainer," she said.
"You do the same thing we do with unwanted dogs and cats in this country. If you can afford to own a horse, you can afford to put one down at the end of its days. We'd love for every horse to live in a bucolic pasture until it's 30. That's never going to happen. The reality is that this animal served you and served you hard. He deserves a painless death rather than having a nail slammed in his head, sometimes three or four times until they get it right."
Doyle, and her group, Save the Horses, is part of a growing effort to at least put a dent into the problem. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is the oldest and best-known of the country's myriad thoroughbred rescue organizations.
"People need to realize that this is a very workable problem; it just takes more money than we have," said the TRF's Pikulski. "What we do can do nothing but good things for racing and its image with the public."
But with its current level of funding, the TRF can afford to care for only 200 horses. Obviously the industry could do more, but doing so might raise awareness that this underpublicized and controversial problem exists.
So it often chooses a strategy of benign neglect. It celebrates the pageantry, the "go, baby, go" excitement and the millions paid out in purse money, but then can't come up with a way to care for many of the animals who make it all possible. At least not for the ones who did one simple thing wrong: they didn't run fast enough to serve mankind's purposes. For that, they get a nail slammed into the skull.
Original Publication Date: 12/20/1998