Looking For The Big Questions

Screen grab from NBC's coverage (linked below)
Screen grab from NBC’s coverage (linked below)

The US horsemeat and slaughter story is one I’m writing about in book two, and it remains stranger even than the recent European scandal. The latest twist involves YouTube. An employee (since sacked) at a New Mexico slaughterhouse that has been trying for over a year to get permission to process horses, video’d himself shooting a horse. He adds an “eff you” to the animal rights activists whom he imagined would watch (and they have now watched it – the video has gone viral). One shot and the horse dies. It’s a humane and legal way to euthanise a horse, but an animal cruelty investigation has been launched. The horse is not killed in a crowded, noisy, bloody abattoir, but simply in a deserted country road, and is patted by the shooter before going down.

How do we dispassionately sort through the meaning of this video? Is this horse’s killing any different to the killing of pets in animal shelters or in homes where they are loved? The human habit of owning pets leads to a tremendous number of animal deaths. Is the horse livestock, and therefore as fair game as a cow? If the man bought the horse, can he not do what he likes with it as long as he’s not cruel? I’ve read many accounts by horse owners who say that a gun or bolt gun is swifter and more accurate than the drugs often used for euthanasia, which don’t always lead to a straightforward death – there is room for miscalculation. An experienced and humane knackerman delivers an instantaneous death.

But his anger is distasteful (to put it mildly), and the larger issues behind the horse meat business are problematic (again, to put it mildly). Because of the possible drug history of the animals, and the lack of accurate documentation, it’s not exactly a problem-free way to deal with former riding horses. Besides which, you can only legally slaughter reasonably healthy animals, which might explain the ragged herds of feral horses appearing near the Mexican border in the US (ie they’ve been rejected by the slaughter system). And the European scandal led to hints that those shaggy herds of “fly grazing” cobs in Britain were, in fact, secretly being raised for meat – enabling the owners to avoid the welfare and transportation regulations required for other meat animals. Many US activists point out that a legal horse slaughter trade allows big, commercial breeders to churn out animals without concern as to quality either of the horse or of life – the abattoirs will clean up their mistakes, and save them from the cost of caring for a horse for its entire lifetime.

I’m not a vegan and that implicates me in the use and killing of animals, whether for meat, dairy produce or for leather and other off-products. I don’t want to eat or wear horses, but apparently other farm animals are fair game to my contrary, picky morals. Our industrialised food system isn’t good for man, environment nor beast. A complete and consistent transformation of modern agriculture to a more humane, sustainable cycle would require a colossal revolution. Is that ever likely to happen?


Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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  1. Nice post. We’ve had several horses euthanased over the years (advanced age, chronic illness) and have always had them shot, and at home. It’s not very pleasant, but for human rather than animal, and disposal isn’t cheap, but that’s a small consideration at the time.
    I’ve always believed it’s better to slaughter a horse locally rather than truck it hundreds of miles (the nearest horse-registered abattoir is 80 miles from us) for it’s residual value, so can’t really understand the reluctance over licensing such facilities in the US.

    Mind you, I’d probably not use a local slaughterman, but that’s just me. Many would.

    1. I think one of the reasons that Federal funding for meat inspections was cut (thus stopping slaughter in the US) was that the very few surviving abattoirs in America were big and nightmarish. That is an issue that’s not exclusively about horses: small and local and given way to large and industrialised, with a serious trade off. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma goes into this in more detail than I can.
      You make a very good point about shooting being more upsetting to the owner than the horse. The use of injections seems to me to be about the owner’s sensibilities rather than the horse, especially given the potential to go wrong.
      I’m beginning to wonder if the struggles over horse slaughter in the US and the scandal in Europe won’t sow some seeds of overall change in agriculture. Mind you, it could just end up being business as usual…

  2. Having managed a ranch where over 35 horses were pastured, over the years a few were put down due to old gae, colic, a broken leg, etc. Our vet used chemical anesthesia in all instances. One time though, she gave a normal dosage to a TB mare that had progressivly severe neurological problems making her very unsafe to her owners, to the point where she needed to be destroyed. This mare did not have an easy death. She needed to be re-injected (very scary) and after about 10 more minutes or awful thrashing about, finally succombed. I’ll never forget what the vet said: a bullet would have been far kinder.

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