Welfare, Ethics & Bias: The debate around horse slaughter

This topic recently came up in my Equine Welfare course. It was also a topic of discussion in the Equine Industry course I took in the winter. I’ve been hesitant to write about it here because it’s quite controversial, but here goes!

The horse lover in me should be in full support of any legislation that bans horse slaughter. However, the topic is far more complex than simply saying “ban horse slaughter because horses should not be raised or sold and killed for meat” or “ban horse slaughter because welfare standards aren’t always closely monitored or enforced and horses may suffer in the process” or “ban horse slaughter because horses are often transported in crowded conditions over long distances with no access to food or water”.

The current reality is that as a result of the closure of slaughter plants in the U.S., horses are being transported much greater distances, to Canada, or in many cases, to Mexico, where there are far worse welfare atrocities and less legislation to enforce proper handling of animals.

An affordable, and arguably humane, if administered according to proper welfare protocols, form of euthanasia has also been removed. As a result, many more horses are being abandoned or neglected by owners who are no longer able to care for them, and there simply aren’t enough rescues or sanctuaries to accommodate the number of horses set free or abandoned to fend for themselves. The Bureau of Land Management in the U.S. is also forced to manage ever-increasing populations of feral horses competing for limited resources.

“For many, horse slaughter would not be a choice but, for those who do choose this method of euthanasia, let us be more focused on the issue of animal welfare rather than on passing judgment on the choice of the method used by others.”

Rather than banning horse slaughter outright, would it not be far more productive to correct the problems in the handling and transportation of all animals for slaughter and closely monitor and strictly enforce procedures at abattoirs to ensure welfare at all steps of the process?

In many countries around the world horse meat is considered standard fare – right here in Canada (dans La Belle Provence), in many European countries, parts of Asia, and Russia. Who am I to judge? I eat pork, beef, elk, chicken, and kangaroo. While I love the idea of a vegetarian diet, it simply isn’t an option for me. Soy and most legumes wreak havoc on my digestive system.

For me, the question of whether or not horse slaughter is ethical comes down to this. If the alternative for horses is abandonment, starvation or other forms of neglect or suffering, is slaughter not a more humane option? – as long as every effort is made to ensure that the animals do not suffer at any point in the process.

It could even be argued that humanely slaughtering horses to provide a valuable and nutritious food source for humans and dog/cat food at the end of their lives, whether they are feral, or companion/work/performance animals is not only more sustainable but perhaps more ethical than raising cattle, pigs and chickens solely for human consumption, often under crowded, resource-intensive conditions. Provided that the horse meat is tested to ensure no trace of harmful drugs of course.

“Let us as horse owners and users, therefore, focus our efforts on horse welfare from start to finish instead of becoming sidetracked by philosophical differences of opinion.”

This is a many-faceted issue, one which, akin to justifying the slaughter of any animal, really, will always be a point of contention with people voicing strong opinions in support and dissent, as well as many who, like me, are on the fence, trying to understand all sides of the issue to reach an informed opinion.

Which brings me to the question, why is it generally acceptable to kill and eat other animals? Animals that are also considered pets and companion animals by a wide variety of people. Backyard chickens, pigs, rabbits, goats, guinea pigs… I can’t help but wonder why there is so much acceptance of their slaughter and consumption when they are just as sentient as horses. Furthermore, the public is fully aware that there are a lot of welfare issues embedded in the husbandry practices under which other food animals are raised. Veal and foie gras being the most obvious examples.

When, why, how did society as a whole decide which animals were ethically acceptable to raise, exploit and kill solely for human consumption and which should be spared from such atrocities? Early humans hunted horses for meat for millions of years before domesticating them about 6,000 years ago.

If we were to apply different lenses to our rationales, such as energy use, environmental footprint, quality of life, the nutritional value of the meat, et cetera, how would the animals in either category change?

There aren’t any easy answers here.

However, rather than focus on whether or not one species that has historically been a nutritious and healthy food source for humans should be altogether banned, energy should be put into elevating welfare standards for all species raised, transported and slaughtered for human consumption. There has to be a better way!

If you’re interested, you can find more information on the topic on the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada website, beginning with the following:

Answering Questions about Animal Welfare During Horse Slaughter by Temple Grandin is a quick, informative read outlining the steps that should be taken to ensure humane horse slaughter.

Lastly, here’s the Ontario Equestrian Federation’s 2014 Position Statement on Bill C-571, which also voices concern about the how the “Bill could result in abandonment, neglect or inhumane euthanasia practices for unwanted horses.”