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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Just before last weekend President George W. Bush signed without fanfare a $100 billion agricultural spending bill that contained many routine expenditures, but hid buried within a raging and painful controversy which can only grow in our American culture.

It is the incredibly widespread slaughter of horses for human consumption.

In the United States, we tend to look upon horses as unique creatures -- more as heroic companions than dumb draft animals or beasts of burden -- that helped us attain our "manifest destiny" and national success.

The Pony Express. Mustangs. Cowboys. The Old West. Cattle drives. John Wayne. Faithful travelers. Willing conveyances. Friends of farmers and ranchers. Life savers, really. In some states, as recently as little more than a century ago, you could be hung for just stealing one.

When I explained to some of my college students that more than 65,000 horses are slaughtered each year in this supposedly humane nation of ours and shipped overseas so well-off Europeans and Japanese can eat them, the information produced disbelief. The students were offended and astounded, and a few driven to tears.

Mainly in France, Belgium and Japan -- but also in Holland, Italy, Switzerland and a few other countries that routinely look down their national noses at Americans as culturally crude barbarians -- diners who consider themselves sophisticated are paying the equivalent of $15 to $18 a pound to eat horse flesh. It is, in these places, considered a delicacy. Another 30,000 horses from the United States are annually trucked into Canada and Mexico where they are killed in slaughterhouses, and then shipped to the nations above for human consumption.

The old saws about unwanted horses usually ending up in glue factories or Alpo cans are untrue. The horse murderers and purveyors of this meat know they can get far more money for their efforts by meeting the human demand. And the victims of this largely unpublicized gustatory trend are not just old plugs or draft horses or farm animals. They are heavier and tougher than the thoroughbreds and trotting horses -- which are preferred for consumption as leaner and more tender. That's right. Race horses. More on that as you read on.

Back to the agricultural appropriations bill. It was more than a month overdue and was supposed to have reached the White House long ago -- but was delayed beyond the normal wrangling period by the stubborn efforts of powerful Texas Republican congressman Henry Bonilla, chairman of the important House Appropriations Subcommittee on agriculture.

Rep. Bonilla, whose huge House district includes San Antonio and El Paso and itself is larger than 24 of the United States, fought tooth-and-nail to remove an amendment to the bill that would have removed funding for the specific federal meat inspectors who are necessary for export of the horse carcasses to Europe and Japan. By effectively barring the Agriculture Department from inspecting horsemeat, the bill was designed to end in the United States the slaughter of horses for consumption.

That meat inspector elimination provision had sailed through both House and Senate with lots of support and fancy speeches, but the clever Bonilla waited until the closed "conference committee" -- designed to meld both versions into a bill acceptable to both legislative houses -- before he attacked. First, he tried and failed to strip the general funding bill of all reference to horse slaughter, then failing that, he tried to add language that would delay enforcement. In that, he succeeded.

The ban on slaughtering horses for human food was supposed to be effective immediately, but the behind-closed-doors changes contain a delay of 120 days, until mid-March. Also, the ban is effectively a mere eight-month moratorium on horse slaughter -- not a law chiseled in stone for years and years.

Also, Bonilla managed to sneak in confusing language that makes it appear horse slaughterhouses may be able to hire their own "meat inspectors" and continue their operations. His quiet perversion of collegial intent is drawing fire from other members of the House and Senate who contend this violates the tradition in both legislative chambers of arguing such controversial matters out in the open during floor debate.

The National Horse Protection Coalition felt so strongly about Bonilla's furtive maneuvers that it attacked him with a full-page ad in the front section of last Friday's edition of The New York Times (a spot which cost at least $120,000), labeling Bonilla's actions a "tragic assault on democracy." Movie star Bo Derek is a spokesperson for the coalition.

Bonilla tried to defend his secretive actions a couple of times by putting out lame public statements that the bill would screw up the provision of other exotic cuts of meat like bison, elk and caribou. When that ridiculous motive didn't fly, his staff got more realistic.

"He's trying to defend the priorities of the Texas farmers and ranchers," his spokesperson Taryn Fritz told the Dallas News. "They overwhelmingly say they're against it."

Why? Well, location of the three U.S. slaughterhouses -- all three owned by Belgian interests -- may have something to do with it. Two are in Texas.

One is the Beltex Corp.'s abattoir in Fort Worth. Another is the Dallas Crown slaughterhouse in Kaufman, Texas. The third killing plant is Carvel International in DeKalb, Ill. Slaughtering horses for food has actually been illegal in Texas for more than 55 years, but the plant owners apparently convinced Bonilla the practice is within the law since the actual eating is done off foreign plates on foreign tables in foreign locations. So much for logic and legislative intent.

Bonilla, 51, shouldn't be surprised at all the nasty reaction he's getting in the media. Most of his professional career has been in television news. He was a TV news reporter in San Antonio, a producer for WABC in New York, a news director for WTAF in Philadelphia, an executive news producer for KENS in San Antonio, and a public affairs and community projects executive for that station before he headed into politics. He should know better.

One reason the horse slaughter ban -- however weak and ineffective -- gained momentum was the slow realization among horse racing fans that some of their favorites were dying agonizing deaths so they could be eaten by humans.

Ferdinand was a big chestnut horse with a goofy golden forelock and a white blaze between his eyes. He won the 1986 Kentucky Derby, the 1987 Breeders' Cup Classic, the 1987 Horse of the Year title, and $3.8 million in purses before retiring to stud at Kentucky's famous Claiborne Farm in 1989 -- a sum then that made him the fifth leading money winner of all time. His Kentucky Derby victory made legendary Bill Shoemaker the oldest jockey to win the celebrated race. Ferdinand didn't produce many stakes-winners as a stallion. In 1994, he was sold to a breeding farm on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. His foal production fell drastically and four years ago the Japanese stud farm sold him to a horse dealer.

When the family that had owned the horse inquired about returning this huge racing fan favorite back to this country, it got the runaround. A writer for "The Blood-Horse" magazine looked into it.

First she was told by the horse dealer that Ferdinand had been given to a friend, then that he had been sold to a riding club, then had been gelded. Finally, the truth came out. Ferdinand -- without any Japanese contact with the original owner or Claiborne farms -- had been "shobun" or "disposed of" in late 2002. That's the term Japanese use for slaughtered. It is quite likely Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand ended up on some Japanese gourmand's dinner plate. When the racing industry magazine broke the story later, thoroughbred fans around the world were shocked and disgusted.

There is only one horse in racing history that has beaten two Triple Crown winners. It was Exceller, a great stretch-runner in the mid-1970s that won big races in France and England -- and the Canadian International at nearby Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. In 1978, Exceller won 7 of 10 stakes starts -- on both dirt and turf, with Willie Shoemaker up -- and in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park came from 22 lengths behind and through a quagmire track surface to beat both the great Affirmed and Seattle Slew by a nose.

He was retired to stud in Kentucky with his father (Vaguely Noble) in the same stallion barn. Exceller was a fine stud (producing 19 stakes winners) but his production, too, dropped. When his once-$50,000 stud fee fell to $2,500 a coupling, he was peddled off to Sweden, where he caught a strange infection. The new owner went bankrupt. Exceller was removed to a smaller farm for a year, then in 1997 was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed for meat.

Exceller is now in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. He is ranked in the Top 100 American thoroughbred champions of the 20th century, but it extremely probable somebody in Europe -- or many somebodies -- ate this wonderful horse. A thoroughbred retirement farm about 12 miles east of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York has been named after Exceller.

Frank Deford, the famous "Sports Illustrated" writer, had a thoroughbred colt named after him several years ago. It wasn't too swift and was retired from competition. Recently the great Deford wrote on SI's Web site that "I assumed he had lived out his life gamboling in green pastures," but only recently he learned "there is a very good chance that Frank Deford ended up as somebody's lunch in Europe."

There is great public revulsion at all this. As Deford observes, we shouldn't have to watch American horses "chopped up for export cuisine" -- despite the frequent arguments we don't have much business telling another culture how and what to eat. Even if that's so, we don't sell our dogs to South Korea, where such animals are considered gourmet food, do we? Telling many racing fans -- including me -- that Ferdinand and Exceller have been consumed as table fare is like telling baseball fans Babe Ruth was eaten by cannibals.

It is shameful, and it sucks out loud.

The slaughterhouses pay about $500 per horse to owners who would have to pay about $1,000 to put a horse to sleep. The slaughtering method is by federal law required to be humane, with a metal bolt shot directly into the horse's brain and then retracted to "stun" it into unconsciousness and brain death as it falls to the ground or floor. That's so, in legal theory, the poor creature won't feel the final blade on its neck. But horrific tales and photos leak out. Often the terrified horse has jerked its head out of the way and escaped the stunning shaft. Still conscious, it is hoisted by one leg and hung upside down anyway, in which position its throat is slit until it bleeds out, shrieking its last. Transportation to these killing factories is also a scandal.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, "terrified horses and ponies are crammed together and transported to slaughter in double-deck trucks designed for cattle and pigs. The truck ceilings are so low that the horses are not able to hold their heads in a normal, balanced position. Inappropriate floor surfaces lead to slips and falls, and sometimes even trampling. Some horses arrive at the slaughterhouse seriously injured or dead."

You don't like reading this stuff? Then do something about it. Two other bills -- H.R. 503 and S. 1915 -- are still grinding through the legislative mill, and they would prohibit transportation of horses in America to such slaughter facilities. Write your federal elected representatives and call them to their attention. They may not even know about them. After all, this whole scandal has largely escaped public scrutiny so far. We Americans, and our politicians, are famously inattentive to our increasingly degrading behavior.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 15 2005