A central Maine state representative wants the Legislature to take up the issue of slaughterhouses that butcher horses for human consumption.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said horses could soon be slaughtered for meat in Maine after Congress last month lifted a five-year-old federal ban on funding horse-meat inspections.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a statement Nov. 29 saying there are no slaughterhouses in the United States that butcher horses for human consumption now, but if one were to open, the department would conduct inspections to make sure federal laws were being followed.

The last U.S. slaughterhouse that butchered horses closed in 2007 in Illinois, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s something coming up and I thought we should be proactive,” McCabe said this week. “I think there are few options here as far as looking at this issue. You either have to be proactive and work with private groups around the issue or wait and see what happens federally. I’m interested in being proactive. There are concerns on both sides of the issue, whether it can be done in the state of Maine and issues around humane slaughter and the process.”

Chris Fraser, state veterinarian with the Animal Welfare Program, said 800 or more Maine horses are slaughtered each year in facilities outside the U.S.

McCabe said many people in Maine are not financially able to care for a horse. He said the cost to feed and care for the animal has gone skyrocketed and the state is feeling the strain of dealing with issues surrounding horse neglect.

“There’s a huge expense around the care of animals that are seized by the state,” he said. “What I’ve seen in the past is the state has to care for these animals until the case goes to court. They can’t make a judgment call on whether they should be euthanized or not. Maybe after a court ruling they become state property or are then euthanized, but that’s not a quick turn around.”

After Congress cut the funding for inspections five years ago, the unintended consequences resulted in inhumane transportation of horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, according to State Veterinarian Don Hoenig.

Hoenig said most of Maine’s horses end up in Canada for slaughter. He said some state legislatures have weighed in on the issue and are in favor of slaughter facilities for horses.

“It’s my opinion we should allow horses to be slaughtered in this country,” Hoenig said. “It’s a humane option for horse owners.”

He said horses that end up in plants outside the U.S. are subject to cruel treatment. A plant inspected by the agriculture department will be required to slaughter horses humanely, he said.

Janelle Tirrell, of Maine Equine Associates, who serves on the state’s Animal Welfare Advisory Council, said she isn’t in favor of slaughtering horses, but she is in favor of humane treatment of animals.

“If this can be done humanely, it’s certainly better,” Tirrell said. “I would rather see a horse go to slaughter than starve to death and freeze to the ground in the winter. I’ve seen live animals frozen to the ground.”

Slaughter opposition

Activists say slaughtering horses is inhumane.

Deb Hutchins, who operates Open Gates Equine Rescue in New Gloucester, said horses have to stand in line for hours and can smell the blood of other horses being killed ahead of them.

“They’re moving the whole time they’re trying to put the stun-bolt next to their heads, so the other horses can hear their cries of fear,” Hutchins said. “Horses are not stupid. They know what’s happening and it’s cruel. They flop down after they’ve been stunned and are dragged out and their throats slashed. They’re stunned, not killed, so they’re moving their legs the whole time trying to get up. Then they’re hung up by their legs. They have to be drained of blood for human consumption.”

Robert Fisk Jr., president and director of Maine Friends of Animals, said his group pushed for state legislation last session that would ban the transportation of horses from Maine to slaughter facilities in other countries.

“We are looking to re-address that issue in the next session,” Fisk said. “We’re very disappointed to see this happen. It’s quite unexpected and I think any state that tries to institute horse slaughter is going to meet with considerable opposition. To claim that slaughter is humane is an oxymoron. There’s nothing humane about slaughtering a horse and Maine should not be complicit in this practice.”

Fisk said supporters of horse slaughter think the industry is profitable, but American horses are raised for companionship and recreation, not for food. There is a long list of highly toxic substance in their bodies, he said. Especially unwanted are harness racing horses, which are drugged to enhance their performance, he said.

The website of the International Fund for Horses has a comprehensive description of all of the drugs racehorses are given.

Hutchins said owners provide worm treatment to their animals every two or three months. When they become lame they’re given Phenylbutazone, one of the most common medications administered to horses, and owners have to take care not to inhale the powder, she said.

Hands should be washed immediately after administering to prevent oral contamination since, in humans, bone marrow, renal, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal side effects are associated with use of this medication, she said.

“It’s real potent,” Hutchins said. “It would kill our kidneys. The packages on these medicines we use for our horses will say right on the label that they’re carcinogenic for people and not to consume any animal meat given this medicine. Some of these horses go to slaughter with staph infections, bacterial infections, and infections we don’t even know what they are. And this meat is being sent off to Europe and Asia.”

Fisk said the pet food industry won’t even use horse meat in their products because of the health hazards it poses to cats and dogs.

Beginning in 2013, Fisk said the European Union will require a lifetime medical passport for any horse slaughtered for meat that is to be exported to Europe.

“Horses with no records will no longer be accepted so there won’t be any profit in it,” he said.

A sensitive issue

Fisk said the last three horse slaughter plants in the U.S. — two in Texas and one in Illinois — employed only 178 people in total and they were low-paying, dangerous, stressful jobs.

The plants were foreign-owned, so the profits went overseas, he said. The communities hosting these plants were beset by pollution and the stench of the slaughter plant, he said. The plants amassed numerous environmental violations and overwhelmed the waste water infrastructures due to dumping of blood, entrails, urine, feces, heads and hooves, according to the International Fund for Horses.

“It’s bad for the horses, it’s bad for human health, it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for workers, and it’s bad for the communities,” Fisk said. “Over-breeding needs to stop. People need to understand that harness racing breeds horses to make money with no consequences for their over-breeding. If a horse does not run profitably, it becomes a disposable commodity. It puts more horses out there to be adopted and slaughtered.”

Henry Jackson, executive director of the Maine Harness Racing Commission, said there actually has been an underproduction of standard-bred horses in Maine since the Internal Revenue Service restructured the tax shelter for breeding farms.

Maine was breeding 300 to 400 horses a year for harness racing and now it averages between 200 and 225, he said.

“There were some very wealthy individuals operating breeding farms and when the changed format indicated they had to show a profit and reduced what we refer to as ‘tax shelter,’ some of these individuals decided to go out of business, and that reduced the number of breeding farms,” Jackson said. “There’s actually a shortage of horses.”

Throughout history, Fisk said, horses have profoundly shaped mankind’s destiny — the way we travel, trade, play, work and fight wars. He said humans have been shaped by our relationship with horses.

“So,” Fisk said, “there’s really no justification for this magnificent, intelligent, feeling animal that has really so faithfully served man for so long, so well and so nobly to be treated in this manner.”

Both Hoenig, the state veterinarian, and McCabe, the legislator, acknowledge that horse slaughter is a sensitive issue.

“People view horses different than cattle or goats or chickens,” Hoenig said. “It’s not part of our culture to eat horse meat in this country. But they do in Europe and other cultures around the world.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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