Some horses deserve a better fate

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-1150916651825.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A small herd of mustangs roam a protected area in southcentral Montana.’);

The horse is a classical subject in evolutionary biology. Exact evidence from paleontology is used to trace the evolution of the modern-day horse, Equus, back some 60 million years and several intermediate stages to a dog-like creature named Eohippus that stood less than a foot high. For some time it, was postulated that the evolutionary stages of the horse did not occur in America, but some years ago, miners in the tundra of the Yukon discovered a frozen horse identical to the modern-day form. The age of that horse was determined to be about 25,000 years.

Today, we believe the horse became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago (about the time of the Ice Age), and was not reintroduced until the 15th century by Spanish conquistadores. Coronado and other Spaniards explored parts of what is now the Southwestern United States during that period and rode and brought horses with them that had been imported from Europe. But, as a matter of fact, the herds of wild horses in the West were not established until later when the Spanish mission system developed.

The horse has played a significant part in the history of the United States, especially in the West. Native Americans quickly captured and tamed wild mustangs, as they are called, and most tribes developed their culture around this animal.

The horse has so endeared itself to us that today many people get upset when they learn horses are slaughtered for meat to be sent abroad. Horse meat is relished in France, Belgium and Japan, and, at least in France and Belgium, there are special butcher shops that sell only horse meat. Such an establishment is called a Chevaline Boucherie and is readily identified by a large, carved, wooden horse’s head over the door. During the three years I lived in France, to the best of my knowledge, I never dined on horse meat. I have eaten rattlesnake, turtle and a host of other “exotic” foods, but, for some reason, I draw the line at horse meat.

There are only three horse slaughter houses in the United States today: Fort Worth, Texas; Kaufman, Texas; and De Kalb, Ill. It is estimated that approximately 88,000 horses died in slaughter houses in 2005. The DeKalb and Kauman plants are Belgian-owned while the one in Fort Worth is French-owned.

One must wonder where the horses come from that make their way to the slaughter house. In earlier times, wild mustangs in the West were rounded up wholesale and trucked to the slaughterhouse, but federal laws passed some years ago now make this practice illegal. In some areas horses rustlers now steal horses to sell to the plants. An influential Texas legislator became so enraged when a herd of his horse was rustled and subsequently sold to a slaughterhouse that he demanded a bill be passed outlawing slaughterhouses in Texas. The bill died in committee.

Some horses are acquired at auctions where the buyer may misrepresent his intentions by telling the owner he is buying the horse for a child, and there are buyers that scour the countryside for individuals with old, injured or sick horses they can no longer maintain. There used to be an old saying that a worn-out horse of no use to its owner was ready for the glue factory, but the truth of the matter is the primary purpose of the horse slaughterhouse is to supply Europeans and Asians with the delicacy they relish.

From time to time outraged horse lovers try to instigate legislation banning the slaughter of horses. At present, in Illinois, HB 117, which would do just this, is under consideration. This is nothing new as similar bills have been introduced before but have been vaporized in House and Senate committees. The horse slaughtering lobby is a little-known but powerful organization.

There is a similar bill in Congress (HR 857) to outlaw the horse slaughter operation, but it will undoubtedly suffer the fate of similar bills introduced at the federal level in the past. Some federal laws concerning slaughterhouse operations do exist, and inspectors periodically check to ensure they are being obeyed. Under federal law, horses are required to be made unconscious prior to dispatching them. A bolt gun that shoots a metal rod into the horse’s brain is usually used to satisfy this requirement.

Untold thousands of cattle, sheep and hogs are slaughtered each day in the United States to satisfy our requirement for meat, and I imagine if by some quirk we acquired a taste for horse meat, the protests against horse slaughterhouses would be a thing of the past. Presently, if we are anti-horse slaughterhouses, we can blame it on the French as we do a host of other things.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 21-27, 2006, issue

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