A horse is a course

in Belgium, anyway. But some West-Coast horse lovers have Texas' meat men--the guys who supply the little-known equine slaughter industry--on the run.

On a gentle hillside 30 miles east of Dallas, out in the countryside near Kaufman, Bailey Kemp pulls his one-ton pickup and 40-foot stock trailer up to a steel-covered horse barn and begins to unload.

First he shoos from his rig 10 ordinary-looking bays. Then a palomino. Then he guides a white quarter horse out by a lead rope and halter. All are healthy-looking animals, although clearly not top stock. "Some people think I'm the worst fella that ever lived," Kemp says after he heads inside to settle up with the horses' buyer.

Sure enough, as one gathers from the posters around the buyers' office, this enterprise is unsettling, to say the least. On one wall is a colorful chart of horse breeds--chunky quarter horses, sleek thoroughbreds, boldly marked paints--above which is a handmade wooden plaque. It reads: "The best color for a horse is fat."

On two other walls are outsized pictures of meat dishes--a roast plated with vegetables, a kabob on yellow rice, a thick steak, and something that looks like a chicken-fried cutlet.

What's creepy is the little line drawing on the folded white napkin next to each plate. It depicts a horse that, if not quite smiling, is looking as blithe and cheery as Misty of Chincoteauge, the little pony of children's book fame. Around the meat pictures, in red, white, and blue print, are the words "U.S. Horse Meat. Eat and Drink American."

Of course, Americans have no more tradition of eating horses than they do of turning their dogs and cats into sausage and stew. But Bailey's dozen horses have come on September 15 to be slaughtered for meat in the set of industrial-looking buildings behind the corral. The meat will then be shipped to dinner tables abroad. In a business that is federally inspected and perfectly legal, the animals will be knocked on the head, bled, cut up, packaged, loaded into Delta or American Airlines freight containers, and flown to France and Belgium, where horse meat is a culinary staple, a low-fat meat often described as tough, bland, and somewhat sweeter than beef.

The Kaufman plant is a cog in that worldwide industry, an outpost in the middle of a state that likes to think of itself as the mythic kingdom of the cowboy and his horse, the noblest, most central creature of the Old West.

Reality is more depressing.
"These guys don't buy horses. They buy meat," says Kemp, referring to Dallas Crown Inc., the horse slaughterhouse he supplies. "Some people look at these animals and see a pet. Other people see a business. People have all different opinions about horses."

Indeed they do. On November 3, voters in California are expected to go to the polls and pass a ballot initiative making it a felony offense--punishable by up to three years in prison--for anyone in that state to do what Kemp does for his living: sell a horse, mule, or burro to slaughter for human consumption.

The initiative has the backing of a raft of celebrities, including Robert Redford, director and star of The Horse Whisperer; Diane Keaton; Pierce Brosnan; Bill Maher; Martina Navratilova, and more than a dozen others. It even has attracted some segments of the horse business--which mostly oppose the initiative--including three race tracks, the 10,000-member Thoroughbred Owners of California, and members of the U.S. Equestrian Team.

"Horses have been domesticated to trust us, and we go ahead and slaughter them for food. It's a complete betrayal of our bond with this animal," says Cathleen Doyle, a former film-industry executive who is leading the California campaign.

Because there are only four horse slaughterhouses operating in the United States--two of them in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one in Nebraska, and one in Illinois, all of them Belgian-owned--the California vote will have an immediate effect on the Texas-centered industry.

Moreover, industry officials fear it could be the beginning of the end for their business. "There is a grander plan than just passing this as a local issue in California," says Brent Heberlein, a consultant and past general manager of Beltex Corp., a Fort Worth slaughterhouse that ranks as the nation's largest. "We're in for a fight. They'll try to go state to state and pass these sorts of laws. These are radical animal-rights activists. What do they call it out there? The land of fruits and nuts."

Last year, about 87,200 horses were slaughtered in the United States for the export meat market. Over the past 12 months, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, about 40,000 equines were killed at the Fort Worth and Kaufman plants, making North Central Texas the horse-meat capital of America.

Any day of the week, one can see killer-buyers--local middlemen who buy horses at auction or answer for-sale ads in the paper--pull their trailers off Highway 175 in Kaufman, or turn down North Grove Street in Fort Worth, just north of the Stockyards tourist district, to the Beltex Corp.'s plant. Among the doomed are one-time racehorses, bucking horses that stop bucking, retired workhorses, and pets. The old, the infirm, the imperfect, the luckless.

Around both plants, the air is scented with the rich smell of horse manure, plus something worse--perhaps the scraps spoiling in the dumpsters. Refrigerated trucks sit idling just outside the gates.

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