“We’re Americans,” Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu told me two weeks ago in the Russell Senate building in Washington, D.C. “We don’t eat our dogs, and we don’t eat our horses.” She had just finished delivering a speech to a rapt audience of two-dozen bright-eyed teenage girls, a handful of congressmen, top members of the ASPCA and Humane Society, and Lorenzo Borghese, star of the ninth season of the reality television show The Bachelor. They had gathered for “Horses on the Hill,” an event organized by a coalition of animal rights groups and equine enthusiasts lobbying in support of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which aims to ban the slaughtering of horses for human consumption.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: restore a ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption. Among the lesser known achievements of the Obama administration was a decision last year to reinstate funding for the USDA inspection of horse slaughterhouses, effectively lifting a four and a half year ban on the practice. It was a move that quickly inspired opposition. In Washington, Senator Landrieu and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Representatives Dan Burton of Indiana and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois authored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act; in New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez has demanded the federal government intervene to prevent a slaughterhouse in her state from becoming the first in the nation to begin slaughtering horses.
The politicians claim to be acting in the interest of American horses, and the horse fans and reality TV stars at “Horses on the Hill” seemed to see it that way, too. But, however good their intentions, their efforts may have the unintended consequence of inflicting more harm against the very animals they’re trying to protect.
To understand why, it’s important to first point out that regardless of whether horses are slaughtered on U.S. territory, the United States does, in fact, have a horse meat industry. Around 130,000 horses (animals that the U.S. tax code classifies as livestock) are currently shipped each year, often in exceedingly poor conditions, from the United States to slaughterhouses in Mexico or Quebec. (The resulting meat is either sold to boucherie chevaline shops in Europe, or eaten domestically in Canada and Mexico.) By thus sparing them the cruelty of a journey abroad, the Obama administration’s decision to allow the horses to be slaughtered on American territory could be considered a humane agricultural reform.
The authors of the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, however, are scandalized at the thought of acquiescing to any harm against horses. Horses are owed better treatment, Landrieu announced at “Horses on the Hill,” because “our nation was built on their backs”; reality star Lorenzo Borghese declared that horses deserve to treated as “majestic animals,” not common livestock. That’s why their bill proposes not only to make it illegal to slaughter horses for meat within U.S. borders, but banning the export of horses for the purpose of slaughtering elsewhere.
But that latter provision is unlikely to ever be enacted, for practical, as well legal, reasons. The practical reason is that enforcing a ban on exports promises to be an extravagantly expensive proposition. The bill requests some 5 million dollars to run inspections of livestock transport at the border (though Charles W. Stenholm, a 73 year old former Congressman turned horsemeat lobbyist, tells me that won’t be nearly enough money to ensure all the trains crossing the border are inspected.) In any case, even if Republicans in Congress are persuaded of the majesty of horses, they are unlikely to make a commitment to the discretionary spending needed to ensure their protection.
There may also be a more fundamental legal problem with the bill. According to Clif Burns, adjunct professor at Georgetown law school and council at Bryan Cave law firm, the act could be in violation of international trade regulations. Specifically, he says “we would be in violation of our WTO [World Trade Organization] and GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] obligations by putting a ban on the export of horses.”
The problem has to do with Article 11 of GATT, which forbids the “prohibition or restriction” of certain products between the signatory nations. There are of course exceptions (ie: banning the export of a product that could be a threat to national security), but Burns says that horses don’t qualify for any of them. “Simply because we disagree with the cultural mores of foreign countries and don’t eat horses here, we want to prevent other people from eating horses,” Burns said. “But that’s not something we can do under GATT.”
If Burns is correct in his assessment that “it’s none of our business what another country does with a product they buy from us,” then it casts serious doubt on the suggestion that Landrieu’s bill is a particularly humane option for horses. Indeed, if Washington is not legally allowed to prevent the export of horses, then banning their slaughter domestically is essentially condemning ever more of them to a cruel journey abroad. Of course, politicians who stand to gain by exploiting the public’s love of horses are unlikely to admit any of this anytime soon.
In the meantime, the slaughterhouses who have applied for a license to process horses will continue to find themselves in an unexpectedly heated political struggle. I spoke with Sarah de Los Santos, wife of the owner of Pecos Valley Meats, the New Mexico slaughterhouse that has been called out by Governor Martinez for requesting a USDA inspection for horse processing. Sarah told me that her husband, Rick, had no prior knowledge he would be the first in the nation to “go the route of slaughter for equines.” In a patient yet melancholy voice she told me that her husband “will proceed” with the plans despite the pressure, and insisted that, all the accusations made by animal rights’ activists and opportunistic politicians to the contrary, her husband is “a very respectable man.”
Nick Robins-Early is an intern at The New Republic.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that America's horse meat industry is currently worth 70 million dollars; that was the value of the industry at the time the horse slaughtering ban was put in place, not right now. Also, the article mistakenly stated that the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act requests 5 million dollars for enforcement annually, rather than in total.