California and the west; animal advocates fight to keep horses off the menu;
Campaign: with mad cow disease increasing demand for alternative meats overseas, groups move to ban slaughter for human consumption.

April 15, 2001 Los Angeles Times by Scott Gold

That's the fear, anyway, of horse lovers who pushed through a ballot initiative in 1998 making California the first state in the nation to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Worried that the outbreak of mad cow disease in Europe could increase demand for American horse meat, they are striving to enact similar laws elsewhere.

Animals that are pets and cherished companions in America are ingredients for sweet sausage and low-cholesterol steaks in Europe, and observers say the modern-day plague of mad cow disease overseas, which has spooked many away from eating beef, has spurred the market for alternative meats, including horse.

That, in turn, has begun to resurrect interest in the small, hidden industry of slaughtering horses in the United States and Canada, then selling the meat in Europe and Asia for human consumption.

Working with an attorney in Berkeley, horse advocates are drafting legislation aimed for the ballot in Massachusetts within the next year. That will mean gathering at least 100,000 signatures and raising at least $ 225,000, said Susan Wagner, president and founder of the Bedford, N.Y.-based Equine Protection Organization.

If that proposal makes it onto the ballot, it will be known as the Brown Beauty Bill, named after the horse Paul Revere borrowed from his neighbor for his famous ride and reinforcing the notion that horses are too embedded in American history to wind up on a dinner menu.

Horse advocates in California are also considering ballot measures in other states, including Illinois, home to one of the nation's three federally licensed and foreign-owned horse-slaughtering plants.

Beyond that campaign, they are considering lobbying for a federal bill that would apply the same protection offered in California nationwide and are pushing the state attorney general to launch an investigation of Californians who are skirting the state law.

Finally, they are urging the federal Bureau of Land Management, which has acknowledged that some of the wild horses it rounds up and auctions off have wound up in the slaughterhouse, to better protect the animals.

Fifteen years ago, there were as many as 15 licensed horse slaughterhouses operating in the United States. By some estimates, they killed more than 400,000 horses each year, many for human consumption overseas.

After a blitz of public relations and political campaigns--even a bombing by one animal rights organization--most have closed. There are just three left--two in Texas and one in De Kalb, Ill., and they slaughter as few as 50,000 horses each year and export nearly 10,000 tons of horse meat per year.

But the outbreak of mad cow disease could undermine the momentum of animal rights activists. Many people believe--though activists dispute it--that horse meat is safer than beef because horses are not fed the animal byproducts that spread mad cow disease in Europe.

"In our country, the horse is not raised as a food animal," said Cathleen Doyle, president of the California Equine Council in Studio City and a key backer of the 1998 ballot drive. "But we could lose some ground."

There is already some evidence of that. Agriculture experts say the market has increased in Europe--some countries are expected to double their slaughter of horses for food this year. Tim Cordes, senior staff veterinarian for equine programs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says it's only natural that the market will have an effect in the United States and Canada, though it's too early to produce any hard data.

"I think it's a safe prediction" that there will be an increased demand for export of horse meat, Cordes said.

The three U.S.-based horse slaughterhouses did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Claude Bouvry, owner of Canada's largest slaughterhouse, said the demand for more horse meat has driven up prices from 50 cents a pound to 60 cents a pound.

And while he said there is limited "elasticity" in the horse meat market--meaning that people who keep horses as pets aren't going to suddenly sell them to slaughterhouses because prices are higher--he acknowledged the effects of mad cow disease have found their way across the Atlantic.

"It's definitely going to be up this year," said Wagner. "And it's all due to mad cow."

Still, Wagner said she believes the campaign to put a lid on the North American market will succeed. If Americans cannot imagine slaughtering unwanted dogs and cats at animal shelters for food, they surely will want similar protections for horses, she said.

"I would consider this a cultural issue, not a food issue," she said.

At least one agency is already feeling the pressure of the group's campaign.

Since 1973, the Bureau of Land Management has been rounding up wild horses from federal land in the West. Those horses--more than 6,000 last year alone--are captured in areas considered dangerously overpopulated.

The vast majority are sent to good homes; one recent survey found that 98% of the horses sold at auction were still with their original owner. But the BLM acknowledges that some have wound up in slaughterhouses, and the higher demand for horse meat is only increasing the pressure to police the adoptions.

The agency requires people who adopt the horses and burros, typically for about $ 200, to sign an affidavit swearing they will not use the horses for commercial purposes for at least a year. Violating that agreement can fetch a $ 2,000 fine and a year in prison.

After that, title passes from the federal government to the adopter and the government's jurisdiction ends.

"They provide the animal a good home for that first year. But after we pass title, it is their private property," BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez said.

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