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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- For a while, this newspaper was one of the lonely few covering the fervid national debate over horses and whether they are just livestock and food for foreigners, or something more respected and treasured in American culture. Now, reporters and columnists all over the country are weighing in on the issue, and Congress took up the matter last week.

As usual, Congress screwed it up beyond belief.

Here's an update. Three Belgian-owned horse-killing plants -- two in Texas and one in Illinois -- slaughter about 95,000 American horses a year, mostly for export to Japan and several European countries, where the flesh is considered a delicacy and goes at retail for about $15 to $23 a pound.

The horses destined for foreign dinner plates often sell at auction in this country for as little as 40 cents a pound, some of which trickles down to naive farmers, ranchers and pet owners who are frequently told their beloved animal is going to some green retirement pasture instead of into a catchment system that ends up in a killing plant. More often, the horse owner can't afford to feed the old horse anymore, or can't handle the zooming veterinary bills, or buys into the spurious descriptions of the killing process as humane, and sends the horse off with a soothed conscience and thoughts of painless euthanasia. More on that gullibility and rationalization in a bit.

When you get that kind of a profit spread described above, you know someone is going to fight to keep the system going -- and the three foreign-owned slaughterhouses have and are. Collectively, they sold about $60 million worth of horsemeat for foreign consumption last year.

The House and Senate are scheduled to vote soon on a bill that would make such slaughter permanently illegal -- a vote which probably will occur during the first week of September when members of Congress return from their August recess vacations.

The bill enjoys bipartisan support in both chambers, has 201 co-sponsors in the House and is mirrored by a companion bill in the Senate, primarily sponsored by Republican senator John Ensign of Nevada, a veterinarian himself.

The House version of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act progressed nicely through the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, but then was hijacked by the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte -- who is vigorously opposed to the slaughter ban.

Goodlatte's panel reported the bill out to the House floor -- a seeming victory for its backers -- but did what congressional committees often do when they want to confuse the public. The panel loaded up the proposal with "poison pill" amendments, killer changes in obtuse language that make a hash of the original intent and usually doom the legislation to defeat or terminal delays.

Now, the House Rules Committee must decide if members get to vote on the original bill, consider a substitute bill without the killer amendments, amend the bill on the floor, or decide on the Goodlatte version with all its clever baggage. The House bill's authors -- Republican representatives John Sweeney of New York and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky -- contend they have been promised a straight up-or-down floor vote on the original bill without amendments. The promise maker is the one who decides: House Majority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. We shall see.

The House Ag amendments make that tampered-with version generally unpalatable to original backers. One would require the Department of Agriculture (which routinely thumbs its nose at congressional intent on this issue) to pay America's horse owners for the cost of euthanizing their unwanted animals if slaughter is deemed illegal. This, it is estimated, would cost the American taxpayer about $160 million a year and prompt howls of fiscal outrage.

Another is a premeditated thumb in the eye of the sponsors. Under a so-called "pilot program," it would limit the slaughter ban to two states -- New York and Kentucky, where Sweeney and Whitfield are from. Sweeney's district includes Saratoga horse country, where the venerable and famous upstate thoroughbred racing meet is taking place as you read this.

Goodlatte even twisted the knife a bit in commenting about the two-state amendment.

"If some people think the bill does (have merit)," he said after the hearing, "they can try it out in two states of two proponents of the legislation."

There are currently no horse slaughter plants in New York or Kentucky. So the amendment is meaningless except for Goodlatte's intended message: Don't screw with me.

Another amendment would "grandfather" the three existing plants as legal -- exempting them from shutting down no matter what law was passed -- effectively obliterating the primary intent of the legislation in the first place. Yet another venomous change in the original bill would exempt from the slaughter ban horses that would be killed for "charitable of humanitarian relief purposes."

That one is a beauty, and testimony to the ingenuity of nameless congressional committee staffers who draft legislation for a living. All the Belgian owners of the killing factories would have to do is throw a few bucks a year to United Way or some American humane society and claim the money came in part from all the horses slaughtered annually, no matter how minutely fractional. Bingo, they're exempt from the killing ban.

The agriculture panel hearing itself was stacked from the get-go. All witnesses in front of the House Ag panel opposed the bill. Goodlatte blithely told the press he received no requests to testify from backers of the legislation. Proponents point out it is House tradition and practice that witnesses from both sides of an issue be invited to testify, and no proponents were.

One of those who did testify at the House Ag hearing was prominent veterinarian Bonnie Beaver, former president of the powerful American Veterinary Medical Association and now a professor in Texas A & M University's College of Medicine. She is opposed to the slaughter ban. She claims it "does not address the disposal of more than 90,000 horse carcasses (a year) if horse slaughter is banned."

She said backers are making this into an "emotional" issue instead of offering solutions to "the problems that would be created."

In the furtherance of the concept of full disclosure, it should be noted that the two Texas plants -- Beltex and Dallas Crown -- pay $5 per slaughtered horse to two recipient organizations: $3 to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and $2 to the Texas A & M Cooperative Extension for its stolen horse prevention and education program. That's worth about $135,000 a year to Texas A & M alone. Excuse me for going hmmnnnn.

Emotions, indeed.

There was a bit of good news for the bill's proponents. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens -- who routinely gives impressive sums to conservative Republican candidates -- appeared at the Energy and Commerce panel to support the slaughter ban and to declare the killing, which he termed America's "dirty little secret," is also harmful because it "cuts against our moral and cultural fiber."

"This is a black eye on our state and nation that demands action," said Pickens, who neatly blew up the argument that most of the killed horses are old, lame, diseased and starving anyway. The USDA, noted Pickens, has described most (90-plus percent) of the horses who are butchered in the three plants as in "good to excellent condition."

"This is all about making money," continued the blunt-talking Pickens. "The kill plants are here in the United States to make money for people in Europe. They should slaughter their own horses, not American horses."

Some of the testifiers last week were downright arrogant. Douglas Corey, the incoming president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners who argued for free trade and property rights, was dismissive of numerous polls that show about 90 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter.

"The general public does not know equine," he sniffed.

Well, apparently Congress doesn't "know equine" either. When an amendment to ban horse slaughter for one fiscal year by defunding specific health inspectors came up for a vote, it passed in the House 269-158 and in the Senate 69-28. The connivers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture got around that by letting the foreign horse killers pay for their own meat inspections, but that doesn't change the numbers.

Another argument that proponents of the trio of abattoirs use is continuance of employment. Think of the hundreds of jobs that will be lost, they wail.

Where were they when our federal leaders shipped all those steelworker jobs in Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Japan in the name of globalization and free trade? Where were they when New England and Carolina textile jobs went to slave-labor sweatshops abroad so some multi-national firms could get rich? Where were they when the air conditioner plants bailed to foreign climes in the name of net profit? Where are they when they let oppressed foreign workers making pennies an hour produce apparel that can be labeled "Made in USA" after a few remaining stitches are added back in this country? Get real. Don't insult us.

Another argument routinely repeated by members of the agriculture panel is the "humane" process used in killing the horses. I will not describe it here, for reasons of space and taste -- but most of you are reading this on a computer, or at least know how to use the Internet. Telling pictures are readily available. Go to your screens and access one of the following web sites to view what I'm talking about: www.savethehorses.com, or www.saplonline.org, or www.usesr.org, or www.kaufmanzoning.net.

Then tell me you'd like to see your aging dog or cat put down that way.

The last thing I'll mention is the deliberate smokescreen that horse slaughter advocates are blowing around -- vegetarianism. House Ag chairman Goodlatte stated it outright last week: "This bill is part of a larger agenda for the animal rights activists, an agenda against all of agriculture."

He and other opponents apparently believe passage would lead to subsequent bans on slaughter of pigs, cows, chickens and other yummy barnyard creatures.

This odd and misleading view is also held locally. Some guy from Grand Island tore me apart in a letter to the editor three weeks ago, claiming my opposition to horse slaughter stems from a vegetarian agenda I must hold and sarcastically advising that I should instead express agony for plant souls each time I chomp down on a bean, or kernel of corn, or carrot stick. Let me clear something up. I am not a vegetarian.

I eat pork. I eat chicken. I eat goose. I eat duck. I eat deer. I eat fish. I eat cute little rabbits. I eat cute little lambs. I eat cow.

I don't eat horse.

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 August 1 2006