The Equine Welfare Alliance met the other day in Saratoga, and afterward I caught up with the president, John Holland, to ask him what he thought about horse racing, this being the season and all.
“We’re not anti-racing as a group,” he said. “Our thing is, we think it needs a great deal of reform,” and he mentioned the banning of drugs like Lasix, at least on race day, as an example of the reforms he had in mind.
I told him I was struck by people who identify themselves as animal lovers having a rather callous attitude toward horses — tolerating, for example, not only the whipping of horses to make them run faster but also the drugging of them to allow them to run when they are injured.
“There are more people who love what the animal makes them look like than who love the animals themselves,” he suggested. “They love being in the winner’s circle, they love riding in a big event.” Which I hadn’t thought of except with regard to the owners of pit bulls, who seem to love how those dogs make them look tough.
Also, he said the association vigorously objects to the idea of “disposable horses,” which he said was “just terrible,” referring to horses that are raced or used in rodeos for a few years, till they’re played out, and then sold for slaughter.
This struck me because I remembered back to 2005, when the banning of horse slaughter was on the national agenda, and I wondered then what would happen to the 50,000 to 65,000 horses that were slaughtered each year in this country (for meat that was exported to Europe and Japan) if the practice was suddenly banned.
The Society for Animal Protective Legislation said at the time, rather cavalierly, I thought, “It is anticipated that many of the horses previously slaughtered would instead be kept by their owners or placed at sanctuaries.”
Now I learned that what actually happened was much simpler. The operators of horse-slaughterhouses set up shop in Mexico and Canada. Used-up horses from the United States were simply trucked across one border or the other. Far from decreasing, the slaughter of American horses for food has actually increased since the ban went into effect in 2007.
According to statistics kept on the Equine Welfare Alliance’s website, 104,896 horses were slaughtered in the United States in 2006, the last full year when it was permitted, whereas last year, 133,241 American horses were slaughtered in Mexico and Canada, after being sold at auction here for that purpose.
The average age of such horses was about five years, Holland said, compared to a natural lifespan of 25 to 30 years. They’re raced for a few years and then sent to the glue factory.
Yes, there are a few “sanctuaries” here and there — Holland himself has 13 horses at the moment on his farm in southwest Virginia — but there is nothing remotely close to accommodation for 100,000 additional horses a year. The idea that that many horses would simply be kept by their owners or placed in sanctuaries was clearly a pipe dream.
I don’t want to open a whole emotional debate again, but I couldn’t help asking Holland why it was OK to kill cows for their meat but not OK to kill horses.
He gave one reason I hadn’t heard before — practical, not ethical — that being, “horses routinely get drugs like phenylbutazone which are absolutely banned in meat animals because they are carcinogens or toxins.” Though I’m sure if they didn’t get those drugs, he would still be against killing them for their meat.
That’s because, he said, “Most Americans regard the horse as a companion animal that should be protected from such predation.”
I guess so. It still doesn’t compute for me, and I’d hate to have to explain it to a cow.
Carl Strock is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper's. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.