A horse is a course
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.
Each week, between 400 and 500 horses are killed in Beltex's complex of beige brick buildings; about half that number is slaughtered in Kaufman.
Texas, interestingly, is one of a handful of states that outlaw the sale of horse meat in stores, restaurants, and cafes--anywhere it might be sold for human consumption. The state's ban came in 1930 and was aimed at stopping people from adulterating ground beef with ground horse. The law, which prescribes penalties of up to two years in jail, ensures that the Texas plants are strictly export-oriented. In other states, only custom stands in the way of a domestic horse-meat market.
The horse-slaughter industry is distinct from the rendering business, which turns horse carcasses into products such as paint thinner, soap, or pet food. (In dog food, horse is sometimes labeled "animal by-products.")
Anti-slaughter advocates say they are not opposed to rendering, because the animals are put down painlessly, usually with a shot of sodium pentobarbital. Because meat from animals killed in this fashion is unfit for human consumption, the horse-meat business employs traditional slaughter methods--the same used for cattle, pigs, and goats.
Critics decry both the killing method and abuses of horses shipped long distances to the slaughterhouses.
In the killing stall, or "knock box," slaughterhouse workers use a device called a captive-bolt gun, which, aimed at the forehead, hits the animal with a retractable four-inch metal rod, shattering its skull.
The equipment and methods are the same as those used to slaughter cattle, but critics say the process is inhumane when applied to horses because they thrash in the stall and are harder for workers to stun because of their long necks.
Heberlein and other industry officials say the horses are killed instantly and without pain. But a hidden-camera videotape taken at Beltex by the Humane Society of the United States in 1994 shows animals writhing and shuddering well after the stun gun is applied. Another undercover tape shot by the San Francisco-based Humane Farming Association at one of the Texas plants in 1996 shows four animals being killed. All require two or three shots from the gun. One horse is hit on the side of the neck in an apparent attempt to get the animal to raise its head. As the horse struggles in obvious agony, blood dripping from its neck, the slaughterhouse worker hits it again and again with his unwieldy stunning device before the poor animal goes down.
"We are a federally inspected plant, and we operate under the federal Humane Slaughter Act," says Heberlein, who, like officials at Dallas Crown, declined to let the Dallas Observer witness the process. "The federal government approves of the equipment and the methods. I really have no choice. These methods have been used in the beef business forever. The captive-bolt system kills them instantly. You will see a reflex called the axonal reflex, essentially the electrical energy being discharged as the body shuts down."
Still, the camera doesn't lie. Sometimes things aren't so neat.
One Dallas Crown employee, who asked that he not be identified, said that the vast majority of horses are killed with a single hit, but that some require a second or third stunning shot. "They are so scared, they move around," says the employee. He says it's impossible to know whether the horses know their unhappy fate. "You can't tell whether they know what they're in for. They sure are scared."
Carolyn Stull, an animal welfare researcher at the University of California at Davis who earlier this year completed a university-funded study of the industry, watched 306 horses being killed at Beltex. The median age of the group was 11.4 years old, or early middle age; the median weight, 950 pounds. "It was pretty easy for them to administer the bolt cleanly the first time," she says. "The horse is in an alert posture, with its head up, which actually helps the person working the bolt. It is a real quick process. It is not enduring. The person I was watching was clearly skilled at what he was doing."
The Dallas Crown employee who spoke to the Observer says the plant receives telephone threats from time to time. But nobody has claimed credit for a 1995 incident in which two dozen horses were scattered by fireworks and freed from the compound. The poor creatures wandered onto the highway, where eight horses and seven drivers were hurt in collisions.
Last year, a group called the Animal Liberation Front took credit for burning down a horse slaughter plant in Redmond, Oregon. In addition to setting the fire, the group said it poured hydrochloric acid into the air-conditioning vents to taint any horse meat stored there. "They used napalm," says Heberlein. "Like in a war."
But market forces have been more devastating to the industry than firebombs.
The strong dollar, recession in Japan (where horse is served raw and thinly sliced as a dish called banashi), a robust U.S. horse market, and changing tastes in Europe all have taken their toll. At the start of this decade, there were 14 slaughterhouses in the United States and as many as 300,000 animals being killed annually. "There are cycles. We are in a down time now," says Gert Dewulf, manager of Dallas Crown.
Horse meat sells in France for about $15 a pound, but it is not considered a gourmet item, as is often reported in the United States, he says. "It is a plain meat, not a delicacy."
And at prices that are inflated by import duties and air transport costs, it is a substance that fewer and fewer Europeans--especially the young--are eating.
Jean LaFont, executive chef at the Fairmont Hotel's Pyramid Room, says, "Young people are getting away from eating cheval. It's something, you know, their grandfather did." The Frenchman says a campaign against horse slaughter by film legend Brigitte Bardot has probably furthered the trend. Still, horse meat is available in every butcher shop in Paris. "For the aficionado, there's cheval tartare. You can do it as a steak Diane, stew, many ways," LaFont says. "It has a sweetness I don't like."
An unspoken covenant between man and horse--one that rules out turning National Velvet into the national dish--is what the California proposition's supporters say is debased by the slaughter business.
"To my knowledge, the horse is the only animal that is awash in ambiguity, sitting up there on the fence," Doyle says. "It's thought of as both a companion animal and as livestock. There's no question cats and dogs are protected as pets. We don't export them to countries that eat them.
"Nobody raises horses in this country to be food or fiber. They are a recreational animal or a sport animal. But there is this secret little foreign industry that gives back a little salvage value. So an animal raised to trust us and serve us somehow becomes a food product. People say, 'By cracky, can't use this horse anymore. No good to me anymore. Let's kill him.' That's the mindset."
Henri Delobbe, livestock manager at the Kaufman slaughterhouse, puts it in simpler, more declarative terms: "Americans are hypocrites about horses. They say they need to protect them, then you see them starving in the fields. If we weren't here, they'd be dying at the edge of roads."
The Studio City-based California Equine Council--which Doyle heads, along with drugstore heiresses Sherry DeBoerr and Sidne Long--collected more than 750,000 signatures earlier this year to secure a place on the November ballot for the anti-slaughter initiative. It's being put forward through the same process Californians used to curb property taxes, halt affirmative action, and deny benefits to undocumented immigrants.
The movement, which has used the slogans "Just Say Neigh" and "Off the Table and Into the Stable," is so easy for urban types to identify with that the season premiere of the Fox series Ally McBeal, which is written and produced in Southern California, focused sympathetically on the issue.
"I think they're gonna get a pass on this one; there's no industry in that state to oppose it," says Beltex's Heberlein. Says Dewulf, at Dallas Crown, "We're too small to campaign against it."
Many of the largest horse organizations--including breed groups such as the American Quarter Horse Association and the American Paint Horse Association, as well as the umbrella American Horse Council--have not taken positions on the initiative. "No horse organization has come out opposing it, but a number are neutral," says Ward Stutz, public policy director for the Amarillo-based quarter horse association, which has 305,000 members. "My feeling is that if we polled our organization, people with one to three animals would tend to be against it [slaughter], and those with more would tend to be for it."
They may be officially neutral, but in talking about the issue, the major horse organizations sound a lot more like representatives of the slaughter industry than of the anti-slaughter activists.
First, they argue issues of health and welfare of horses. If, in Stutz's words, "horses that have failed many chances to be useful" are not slaughtered, cases of neglect, abuse, and starvation are apt to climb. "I think you're gonna see people hauling horses to the end of some lonesome road and dumping 'em, a lot like people did with the emu when they lost their value."
Says Ed Roberts, executive director of the Fort Worth-based American Paint Horse Association, "It's an emotional issue, and unfortunately a lot of people don't see the total picture. If you realistically look at the facts and what is best for the health and welfare of the animal, the answers aren't as clear-cut as the proposition's supporters would like you to think." He points out that veterinarian groups such as the American Association of Equine Practitioners approve of the method of killing used in the slaughter plants.
Replies Doyle: "I've been around horse people all my life, and there always has been horse trash, people who abuse and neglect their horses. People who let their animals sit there and starve are criminals. We already have laws against that."
Then there are economics. "There are people who make $20,000 a year who enjoy owning a quarter horse," Stutz says. To them, the difference between selling an unwanted horse for $500 and paying $150 to $300 to euthanize and dispose of one is significant, he says.
Daryl Jeffreys, a Midland stable owner who pulled his Dodge Ram pickup in front of Beltex on September 14 and unloaded a trailer of horses, says, "To me, you've pissed away $550 if you don't sell your horse to slaughter...California comes up with a lot of weird things.
"The true horseman, the guy making a living like me, the small-time horse buyer and raiser, they all realize the killer market is what keeps the price of horses up. It does away with cheap, good-for-nothing horses."
Doyle boils down all the opposition's arguments to one thing: "It's simple greed," she says. Greed by people in the business of overbreeding horses in search of the perfect color, the right spots, cow sense, speed, size, polo skills, and so on. "It's a business. There is no connection to the animal whatsoever," she says.
And because the slaughter market establishes a floor price for horseflesh--currently about 50 cents a pound, or $550 for an average-size adult horse--it decreases the chance that horses that don't make the grade at the track or, say, come out of the womb male and without spots will be recycled to become affordable saddle horses.
Stull, the UC Davis researcher, disagrees. Of the hundreds of horses she saw end up in the killing stall, she says, "In most I could find either behavior or some sort of injury, lame in one leg, blind in one eye, which would make them less than prime riding-horse candidates."
Or as Bailey Kemp, the plain-talking horse trader puts it, "I take the bottom. I don't take the cream."
On a busy four-lane road in Cleburne, a portable sign in front of the Johnson County Livestock Commission reads, "Horse Sale Thursday." By 6 p.m., the parking lot is full of trailers bringing horses to and from the weekly all-breeds auction.
This is not to be confused with, say, the world championship paint horse auction held each summer at the Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth, where horses change hands for $60,000.
Here, under the bare-bulb lights, ranchers and farmers bring their kids and dogs, buy orange drinks and burgers, and fill up perhaps one of the last public places in the country where indoor smoking is still allowed.
At the tack sale opening this evening, even used nylon halters--which go for $8 or so--and feed buckets are thought valuable enough to sell. Once the 40 or so horses begin to parade and the auctioneer's cicada-like call fills the air, it becomes clear that the average horse this night is selling for around $900.
Bailey Kemp, the killer-buyer, is here. He never misses a week, he says.
From his ranch in Boyd, northwest of Fort Worth, the 38-year-old Kemp traveled to four auctions--the farthest about 200 miles away--to collect his most recent load of horses for slaughter in Kaufman, he says.
A heavyset man dressed in jeans, a plain gray T-shirt, and red gimme cap, Kemp says the tight margins on which he works make him reluctant to say much about details. "You can go to any of these weekly auctions, out at Pilot Point or that one off Highway 80 east of Dallas, and learn the horse business. I have plenty of competition."
At the recent auction in Cleburne, Kemp bid early and low on every animal, from a bony mule with a matted, scruffy coat to a quarter horse that eventually fetched a $2,400 bid, to a pony ridden into the auction ring by a little girl.
"I started off every one," he says afterward, searching through the metal barn to find the two horses he bought for prices that appeared to be in the low $400s. At its core, the bidding is a survival game in which each animal's life depends on whether someone will outbid Kemp. Yet there is no guarantee that some of the other bidders aren't killer-buyers as well, only working on even smaller margins.
Slaughter opponents say that unsuspecting horse owners sell their animals at auctions such as this and don't realize that the meat man's agents are around. "People think their animal is going off to be a camp horse in Wyoming when it's really just a few hours from slaughter," Doyle says.
But that hardly seems to be the case at the Johnson County sale, where everybody appears to know and welcome the slaughter market as a part of the trade. Banning horse slaughter "is kind of romantic, but it's a way city people think," says Shauri Beaumarchais, who has been raising, training, and showing horses for 35 years and currently owns a string of trail-riding horses at her ranch in Meridian.
"Out here, people look at a horse and ask, 'Will he work? Will he do what needs to be done? Is he taking care of business?' If he's not, then something needs to be done. It's a more realistic world. There are a lot of bad horses out there, horses that will rear up and fall straight backward when you try to get on," says Beaumarchais, who has bought and sold horses at the Johnson County auction.
Doyle, from California, says she hesitates to categorize parts of the country in their attitudes toward horse slaughter. But Texans seem particularly steeped in agrarian, utilitarian attitudes about the animal.
"I have seven horses, two of them very old. My family calls them Kal-Kan," says Lou Guyton, who keeps her stock on eight acres in suburban Mansfield. "Growing up in Texas around horses, I can tell you that's typical."
People can't understand why anyone would pay $50 to put a horse down and another $150 to have a "dead hauler" take the carcass to a renderer, she says.
The only thing about the slaughterhouses that has raised concern among this breed of Texas horse owner is the fear that their stock could be stolen and sold to the plants before anyone is the wiser. "A few years ago, we had some boys who were stealing horses around here and taking them straight to Beltex," says Renee Robinson, who raises show horses in Keller.
Jody Henderson, director of brand inspection for the Fort Worth-based Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, says rustlers have been known to lame high-quality horses purposely by driving spikes into their hooves, then sell them for slaughter.
To curb such abuses, a Texas law was passed last year that required people who bring horses to the two Texas slaughterhouses to show identification to brand inspectors, who must then record and keep descriptions of horses and brands sold by each individual. The law specifically requires those lists to be made public each month and put on file with county clerks. But officials with Beltex and Dallas Crown admit they don't file their lists in Kaufman or Tarrant Counties. "Nobody does that," says Heberlein. "The county, they don't know what to do with the list."
Tarrant County Clerk Suzanne Henderson says that is simply not true. "We'd be happy to keep those records. Nobody has talked to us about this. The law is very clear about the requirement to file the lists."
Heberlein dismisses the whole issue with a single thought: "The horse-theft problem was blown way out of proportion." In the year the brand inspectors have been at the two plants, not a single horse coming in has been proven stolen, he says.
For the past 10 years, The Humane Society of the United States has been a prime force in the campaign against abuse of horses in the slaughter trade. In 1994, for instance, it released to the press corps at the Kentucky Derby the results of an extensive investigation. The report, which included videotape shot at Beltex, condemned the harsh treatment of horses in transit to the plants.
Investigators found horses being shipped in double-decker trailers barely tall enough to allow the animals to stand. Stallions, foals, and mares about to give birth were packed in nose-to-tail--a situation that ignores horses' instincts and encourages fights and injuries.
Pushed by the Humane Society to act, Washington lawmakers instead yielded to the farm lobby, which wanted little to do with livestock regulation. In 1996, a watered-down measure was included in the farm bill that called for development of guidelines for the transportation of horses to slaughter. No appropriations were passed for the rules actually to be written.
"It was a press-release victory," Doyle says. "Nothing happened until they caught wind of our initiative. Then they found 400 grand to write some regulations that, from what we've seen so far, will regulate present practices into law."
Officials in the slaughter industry say gentler transport of horses to their plants is in their interests. "We want a uniform product," Heberlein says. "It does us no good to have an animal with cuts and bruises that's dehydrated and stressed."
Rifts between Doyle on one hand and the Humane Society and the American Horse Protection Association on the other over the yet-to-be-completed federal guidelines have infected the California campaign.
"We don't understand how the initiative will accomplish what it says it is going to accomplish," says Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protection Association in Washington, dismissing the California push. "Besides, we haven't been asked to support it."
On the other side, Doyle says she doesn't need the support of groups she accuses of taking millions of dollars in donations in the name of animals, then accommodating the killer industry with compromise.
If California voters pass the initiative, as nearly everyone says they will, a legal battle is all but guaranteed. The slaughterhouse owners already are considering a court challenge on the principle that shipment of horses is interstate commerce that cannot be limited by the states.
"God gave people the right to do with their personal property as they see fit, so there will be some constitutional issues that will be addressed too," Heberlein says.
Meanwhile, Bailey Kemp and his business rivals will continue to labor in their grim trade. Answering newspaper ads, combing sale barns for eligible stock, Kemp says his business plan is elementary: "I'll buy any horse that will make me money. Simple as that.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.