When local leaders lobby Congress, it’s usually to request money for key programs or to ask for an end to regulations viewed as expensive or onerous.
But lately, local government advocates have been picking a more unusual fight with Congress: They're urging to preserve the United States' role in the horse slaughter industry.
The National Association of Counties, which lobbies Congress on behalf of the country's 3,000-plus counties, is trying to persuade lawmakers to vote against bipartisan legislation that would make it illegal to export horses so that they can be slaughtered and turned into meat for human consumption. It's something of an unusual position for an organization that is typically more involved with issues like taxes, grant funding and arcane regulations. But NACo officials say they're taking up the cause because the proposed legislation would have a costly effect on local governments.
Domestic horse slaughtering essentially ended in 2007, when Congress stopped giving the Department of Agriculture funds to inspect the slaughterhouses. Without inspections, the slaughterhouses couldn’t operate. That fall, the last of the country's three slaughterhouses – Belgian-owned facilities in Texas and Illinois – finally closed its doors. But the industry has continued north and south of the border, so U.S. horse owners can still export the animals to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. From there, they are shipped to Europe and Asia, where horse meat is seen by many as a delicacy.
Last year, nearly 138,000 horses were shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. That's about the same number of horses that were slaughtered domestically and exported in 2006, the year before the ban. So, for the most part, the industry hasn’t disappeared – it’s simply moved elsewhere.
But in some parts of the U.S., the domestic ban has made it more difficult for horse owners to rid themselves of animals they no longer want or need due to their age, injury or behavior. While the domestic slaughter industry once served as a willing source for the unwanted animals – known as “cull horses” – the logistics and expenses of exports appears to have slowed the market in some places.
Without a buyer for unwanted horses, and with the cost of euthanizing and disposing of a horse in the hundreds of dollars, a growing number of owners are simply abandoning the animals, according to county leaders and the GAO. In most places, it’s the county sheriff or animal control office responsible for collecting the animals, feeding them, and eventually finding them new homes or euthanizing them -- all on taxpayer dime. It costs nonprofits an average of $3,600 per year to care for each unwanted horses, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. That's an expense localities don't want to incur.
NACo opposes the existing domestic slaughter ban, and it's urging Congress to vote down a proposal to ban the export of horses for slaughter too, arguing that the policy would increase the already-elevated number of abandoned horses county governments are forced to deal with.
“We’re not getting involved in the larger emotional context,” says Erik Johnston, an associate legislative director of NACo, who describes the horse policy as an unfunded mandate on county governments. "I think our members come at it from a very pragmatic perspective.”
(It's worth nothing that some animal welfare groups question the link between a slaughter ban and an increase in horse abandonment.)
The GAO has recommended that Congress either re-instate domestic horse slaughter – arguing that if horses are going to be slaughtered, it may as well occur at facilities up to U.S. standards – or ban the export of horses for slaughter altogether.
Congress is moving toward the latter approach. Sen. Mary Landrieu is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit “shipping, transporting, moving, delivering, receiving, possessing, purchasing, selling, or donation” of horses for slaughter, which would mean U.S. horses couldn't end up at Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses. The bill has wide support, garnering 22 cosponsors from both parties, though previous versions of the legislation that were popular have stalled in the past. It's currently pending in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
It seems nobody – not even the slaughter ban's opponents – has estimated the cost to localities of unwanted horses that would have otherwise gone slaughtered. But Harold Blattie, head of the Montana Association of Counties, says it’s “significant.” The recession, which has coincided with the ban, has exacerbated the problem. “If you don’t have $350 to feed your kids, you’re not going to spend it to euthanize your horse,” Blattie says. “That’s when people think they’re doing the humane thing, which is unfortunately the worst thing: they’ll take it to public lands and turn it loose.”
Brian Dahle, a county supervisor in rural Lassen County, Calif., says residents have run out of options as a result of the domestic ban. “We didn’t use to have this issue,” Dahle said. “They used to pay a little something for them at the auction. Now, there’s no ability.” Dahle says he supports domestic slaughter for humanitarian reasons as much as economic reasons, since many domesticated horses that are abandoned in lieu of slaughter lack the ability to forage for food and can starve to death.
But opponents of horse slaughtering say that view is misguided. They argue there's no justification for horse slaughtering, since it's a particularly heinous way for the animals to die. "The slaughter of horses is both cruel and inhumane, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it no longer occurs," Sen. Landrieu has said.
Most of the opposition to horse slaughtering is presented in emotional terms. Horses are "a proud symbol of the American West, treasured by all for their beauty and majesty," said Rep. Jim Moran, a a Democrat from the northern Virginia suburbs, who worked to ensure the House's FY2012 budget would continue to ban domestic slaughter.
Meanwhile, speaking from an office nearly 2,000 miles west of Moran, Blattie says that kind of talk illustrates the geographic schism that has clouded the issue. People on the east coast tend to view horses as pets, while people in the west view them as property, he explained. “Therein lies the conflict that’s just going to be here," Blattie says.