BLACKFOOT, Idaho - Horses have not been slaughtered in the United States since 2007, when the federal government stopped funding inspectors for the facilities. Animal rights groups supported that action because they feel slaughter is cruel, and the meat potentially dangerous.
It did not, however, stop slaughter. Buyers simply hauled the unwanted horses to Canada or Mexico, where horse processing for meat consumption is allowed. Some feel that is even more cruel and inhumane because the horses are hauled longer distances, and some of the rules for handling the horses that applied in the United States do not apply in other countries.
Animal rights groups are now supporting a congressional bill, H.R. 1094, that would forbid exporting horses over the border for slaughter. The bill has 86 sponsors, which is considered by some politicians to be pretty impressive.
Willie is a 36-year-old quarterhorse and in fine condition for a senior citizen. His pasture mate, Tiger, is 26 years old. These horses will never be sent to slaughter because their owner is a veterinarian who will euthanize them when the time comes.
However, Dr. Dave Stanley does want horse-processing facilities to reopen in the United States.
"I personally am very in favor of it. I think it will increase the quality of the general horse population's life," says Stanley, a veterinarian.
He said that in his practice in Blackfoot, he's seen a huge increase in starving animals since the processing plants closed. He believes it's because there's nowhere to take unwanted horses.
"Since they reduced our access to horse slaughter, the biggest thing I see in the winter is many more cases of starving horses. They go down in the winter. Owners think it's because of the ice," said Stanley. "But when you get there, there's no muscle, no condition under that hair, and the poor things are starving to death. "
Stanley said it's human nature. Some people will haul a horse to the livestock yard to sell, and pocket some money. But those same owners won't spend money to have the horse euthanized.
"Human behavior keeps us from doing the right thing. But that's not an argument for doing the wrong thing," says Nancy Parry of the ASPCA.
Animal Rights Organizations like the ASPCA and PETA do not support reintroducing horse slaughter plants in the United States because , in their opinion, it is too cruel.
The cruelty begins with the long haul to the plant, being crowded into corrals to await slaughter, smelling the blood and hearing the screams of other horses, and the stun gun to the head to knock the horse unconscious.
"They fling their heads when frightened. This is unique to horses. The horses are then hit multiple times by the stun gun all over their heads and necks, injured over and over again," said Parry. "Often they never are properly stunned. But the crews hoist the horse up by one leg and begin the slaughter anyway."
Members of PETA have a long-term solution to this.
"I think establishing a euthanasia center would give people an alternative to shipping them off to slaughter. Hopefully it would be low-cost," said Lindsay Rajt with PETA.
When a horse is euthanized, it is given a shot by a veterinarian that puts it to sleep. There is a cost to that, and there is a cost to have the carcass hauled to the landfill.
Euthanasia centers around the country may be a great goal, but setting up centers to put horses down humanely will not happen overnight. What do horse owners do today?
Stanley said that just like cats and dogs at the animal shelter, there is an overpopulation problem. When it comes to horses, slaughter facilities are an option.
"It's not the best experience for a horse. No one is going to say it's pleasant. But it's the lesser of evils. When you see an animal starving to death slowly, inch by inch, month by month, that misery far outstrips the shortened uncomfortable part of going to slaughter, " says Stanley.
H.R. 1094 is in the House Agriculture Committee now. Most of the co-sponsors are Democrats, It will take the support of some Republicans to get it out of committee.
To view the bill, see http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php. To find it, type in "H.R. 1094" and mark the bill number box.