By Bill Heller
With the ban of horse slaughter for human consumption in the United States ensured for at least the next two years, equine advocates from around North America convened at the 2014 American Equine Summit in Chatham, N.Y., April 26-27 to push for a permanent ban and the elimination of exporting American horses to Canada, Mexico, and Japan for slaughter.
"We're safe, but what's next?" asked Victoria McCullough, the owner of Chesapeake Petroleum and an international equestrian and equine activist. McCullough successfully enlisted the support of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to remove funding for slaughterhouses in an Omnibus Bill signed into law by President Obama Jan. 17. "We will end horses going across the borders," she said. "Horse meat will kill you."
While horse slaughter in the U.S. ended in 2007, a proposed slaughterhouse in New Mexico nearly opened last December before the funding for mandatory meat inspectors was removed in the Omnibus Bill. Yet, according to the Equine Welfare Alliance, more than 150,000 U.S. horses were exported for slaughter in 2013 despite increasing global concern over the toxicology of horse meat. Such meat may have been contaminated by the myriad of drugs that horses—especially Thoroughbreds—are treated with, especially the analgesic phenylbutazone, known commonly as bute.
A scandal erupted in France in mid-December when authorities discovered that horses that had been used to produce anti-rabies and other serums were discovered in horsemeat sold to the public. Twenty-one people were arrested in Narbonne on Dec. 16. Two months later in Germany, another scandal erupted when horse meat was detected in frozen lasagna being sold in supermarkets. Subsequently, the European Union advised all countries to test meat.
"There is a global concern about food safety," McCullough said. "We must disqualify equines from the food chain. We have to win the EU and Canada. Science will win for horses, and we're on the doorstep."
McCullough has purchased the entire lot of horses offered at the Sugar Creek, Ohio, auction, known for selling horses bound for slaughter, on three occasions and said this about the demographics of these horses that were being sold: "The majority are former racehorses. Seventy percent are Thoroughbreds. The average age is 3 to 4 years old. It's unbelievable."
McCullough was one of a dozen speakers at the Summit, which was held at the 140-acre Equine Advocates' Rescue & Sanctuary, now home to 80 rescued equines in Chatham, about 120 miles northeast of New York City.
Susan Wagner started Equine Advocates, a national non-profit 501 (c)(3), in 1996 after rescuing her first horse from slaughter, Gandalf. She opened her equine rescue and sanctuary, which is now home to 85 equines, in 2004, and came up with the concept of an annual equine summit. This year people came from as far away as British Columbia, California, Montana, Texas, and South Dakota to attend the event, which was by invitation only. Asked of her goal, Wagner said, "We have to close our borders for all time."
Jane Velez-Mitchell, of CNN's Headline News, was the keynote speaker and spoke passionately about wild horses and carriage horses, currently a controversial topic in New York City. "I live in midtown Manhattan and I look in their eyes every day when I walk my dogs," she said. "They are miserable. They are terrified and they don't belong there. Tradition? Chastity belts were a tradition. Carriage horses must be eliminated."
George Strawbridge Jr., an internationally renowned breeder and owner who has had great success racing in the name of Augustin Stable, didn't hold back expressing his views on slaughter and the ongoing problems Thoroughbred racing is having with drugs and the recent scandal concerning a story released by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) about trainer Steve Asmussen's stable.
"Horse slaughter is disgusting and flat out cruel," Strawbridge said. "It's revolting cruelty."
Concerning the PETA scandal, he said, "This could be a turning point. But where is the outrage from within? The racing industry hasn't done anything in 35 years. Suspensions are slaps on the wrist. If you love horses, you don't give them drugs. Period. Frankly, it's an embarrassment to be racing in the United States when the rest of the world doesn't allow permissive medications. Why does our industry give horses drugs? Because they work."
Racing regulators in New York and Kentucky have launched investigations of animal abuse and mistreatment alleged by PETA in a video that was promoted through an article in the New York Times. The video was collected by one of the animal-rights association members while she worked last year for trainer Steve Asmussen and have largely focused on the trainer's former assistant Scott Blasi. Involved parties say videos were shot at both Churchill Downs and Saratoga Race Course over a period of at least four months.
Another speaker, John Holland, the president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, said the elimination of the exportation of U.S. horses to slaughter would not create a glut of unwanted horses. He also said that after California passed a state law eliminating horse slaughter in 1998, horse theft in the state diminished dramatically. He also pointed out that when Dallas Crown closed in 2007 in Kaufman, Texas, the city's crime rate plunged. Kaufman Mayor Paula Bacon was in the audience at the Summit.