Horse rescuers competing with butchers

May 2, 2001 The Columbus Dispatch by Kathy Lynn Gray

More and more American horseflesh is being served on European dinner tables this year.

And some of it is from Ohio pastures.

"It's barbaric,'' said Susan Wagner, president of Equine Advocates, a national horse-protection organization based in New York.

But the fear of mad-cow disease and the effect of foot-and-mouth disease on livestock markets have created an increased demand for horse steaks and chops in Europe, Wagner said.

In response, more horses are being slaughtered for meat.

Sam Mullet, who auctions carriage horses in Sugarcreek in Tuscarawas County, said he's seen a big jump since the beginning of the year in the sale of horses for slaughter.

He said that at one large Indiana auction house about 200 horses were for sale for slaughter, compared with about 100 for sale as riding and work horses. Last year it was about half and half, he said.

Ohio has 10 licensed horse-auction operations and 288 licensed dealers, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. They are selling more horses at a higher price, but it's unclear whether the demand is from foreign sources.

Mullet attributes the increase in the horse "meat pens'' to the rising price of horse meat. Exported horse meat now costs 75 to 80 cents per pound, compared with 45 to 50 cents per pound last year.

Wagner, who tries to rescue animals at auction by outbidding buyers for slaughterhouses, said she's rescued more horses from Ohio and Pennsylvania than from any other state.

Large populations of Amish in both states contribute heavily to the horses being sent to auction, she said.

Wagner said she bought five horses from the Amish in Ohio last week, as well as four at a Sugarcreek auction on Friday.

"There was not a thing wrong with them,'' she said. Wagner said her group will find homes for the animals.

Victoria Goss, who rescues ailing and unwanted horses in Athens County, said higher prices for horse meat have raised the cost of rescues. Horses that Goss would have bought at auction for $ 200 to $ 300 last year now sell for $ 500 to $ 700, she said.

Unwanted foals she could get for $ 100 or less from Kentucky farms last year now cost $ 400.

"They're worth more dead than alive,'' she said. "We used to be able to outbid the killers, but we can't afford to, usually, now.''

Last year at this time, Goss had 106 foals at her nonprofit Last Chance Corral farm on Rt. 33 on the south side of Athens. This year, she has been able to save 70.

Although Ohio has laws governing the sale of horse meat -- records must be kept for sales of more than 5 pounds -- virtually no market for the meat exists domestically.

"Nobody here looks at a horse and says: 'Here's dinner,' '' Wagner said.

"Horses are very much revered in this country. They're in a different category than food animals.''

Yet, horse meat is regularly served in Italy, France and Belgium as cheval, a low-fat, high-protein alternative to beef.

The Ohio Agriculture Department has no record of any horse slaughterhouses in Ohio.

But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tens of thousands of horses are slaughtered in the United States each year to meet foreign demand.

Agriculture Department figures show that last year in the United States, 50, 449 horses were slaughtered, compared with 64,036 the previous year. However, many horses bought in the United States are slaughtered in Canada because the number of U.S. slaughterhouses has begun to dwindle during the past decade.

About 60,000 horses, half from the United States, are slaughtered for export each year in Canada.

Denny Hales, executive vice president of the Ohio Quarterhorse Association, said he doesn't consider horse slaughter a big problem here because most Ohio horses are used for recreational purposes.

But in the West, he said, some farms raise horses for slaughter.

In California, the state with the fourth-highest horse population, a 1998 referendum made it a felony to sell a horse for human consumption.

Equine Advocates has a national advertising campaign featuring a drawing of a horse head on a plate with the words: "Dinner, anyone? I don't think so.''

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