Because a year ago the courts shut down the last two slaughterhouses in Texas that turned horses into meat for human diners, most people think American equines are no longer being killed to satiate appetites in Europe and Asia. Yet thousands of horses are being exported to Mexico and killed by more brutal means than in the now closed U.S. plants, and animal welfare advocates are determined to halt the practice by stepping up pressure on Congress for an export ban.
The battle pits activists against those in the heartland who make a living hauling horses to slaughter. For several Dallas women determined to keep local horses off foreign dinner plates, the past year has brought conflict.
Paula Bacon, former mayor of Kaufman and a longtime horse lover, was at a Stephenville horse auction in October when something caught her eye. It appeared to be a double-decker trailer, a means of transport designed for cattle and banned for hauling horses to slaughter.
As Bacon and her friend Julie Carramonte watched from Bacon's pickup, they noticed a horse on the upper level and heard it whinny. Carramonte took out her camera and began snapping photos for Habitat for Horses, a horse rescue group, when the owner of the trailer appeared and approached the truck. Bacon didn't want to talk. She says she'd heard tell of local "killer buyers" dubbed "the horse slaughter mafia," rough men with criminal records and shady reputations who bought horses and drove them to the border for slaughter in Mexico.
Bacon stepped on the gas. The man, 22-year-old Trenton Saulters of Kaufman, shrieked insults and hurled rocks at her truck as they sped away, Bacon alleged in an October 10 police report. "He was in a fury," she says.
The women had gone to the Stephenville auction, which is among the largest in the state and takes place the first Friday of each month, to observe the conditions and see how many horses were bought for slaughter. According to Uta Sondergeld-Queen, a Grand Prairie horse advocate, more than 100 horses sold at the auction each month are taken to Mexico for slaughter.
"It's important to see how many are actually auctioned for slaughter so we can keep up with the numbers," says Sondergeld-Queen, a German-born model and nurse's assistant who owns eight horses and frequents auctions around the state. "I'm always ready to buy cheap horses that have been neglected and can still be turned around. Horses going to the meat market have usually been starved, abused, neglected."
In 2006, some 100,000 horses in the U.S. were sold in auctions and killed in one of the three remaining slaughter facilities, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then last year, Illinois banned horse slaughter and a federal court upheld a 60-year-old law in Texas that prohibits the slaughter of horses for human consumption (it doesn't regulate the export of live horses, however). That meant the demise of the state's last two horse slaughterhouses—Dallas Crown in Kaufman, which former mayor Bacon worked to shut down, and the Beltex plant in Fort Worth.
The European companies that ran the Texas facilities have since moved their operations to Mexico, setting up holding lots in Texas and New Mexico and opening slaughterhouses for horses along the border and farther south in the Mexican interior. Contract "killer buyers" attend auctions like the one in Stephenville and haul horses south to meet their end.
The Humane Society of the United States and other advocacy groups, which are pushing for passage of legislation languishing in Congress that would ban not only slaughter nationwide but the export of horses for slaughter, have denounced the treatment of horses during transport and inside the slaughterhouses. Humane Society video footage shows horses hurt while being herded into crowded trailers, and one video shows an injured horse left to die along the border. Images recorded inside a facility in Juarez show workers using knives to slice the backs of horses' necks to paralyze them before slaughter.
Sondergeld-Queen, in her efforts to document abuse and rescue horses, has had a number of confrontations with Cheryl Moore, the co-owner of the Stephenville Cattle Co., which leases its barn for the monthly auction. It began a year ago, Sondergeld-Queen says, after an article in Texas Monthly described her observing the auction. Moore, she says, demanded to know what she was doing in this country, asked why she couldn't mind her own business and called her a terrorist. In a later exchange in November, following the incident between Bacon and the killer buyer, Sondergeld-Queen says, Moore told her that "people who can't mind their own business and want to fight for animal rights and get people out of work should be shot."
Moore denies calling the activist names or issuing threats, but she says she did question her motives and ask her to leave. "I don't remember calling her a terrorist," says Moore, 57, who grew up on a farm and runs the 32-year-old cattle company with her husband. "I called her an animal activist—I don't know if there's a difference between an activist and a terrorist."
To Moore, efforts to ban horse slaughter are just another misguided and irrational attempt to put people out of work. The sale price for horses has dropped, according to auctioneers and media reports, and Moore says she has lost between $10,000 and $20,000 in the past year because before the domestic slaughterhouses closed, the company hauled horses from around the country to the Beltex facility in Fort Worth.
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"I heard last month the buyers were scared the market was gonna be nothing," she says. "These ladies give money to the Humane Society, and they're giving money to disrupt our economy. People in Dallas, they don't have any touch with rural America...Why would you slit fellow Americans' throats?" Not only is the slaughter ban economically disadvantageous, she says, it's an example of encroaching governmental regulations. "This is just the beginning," she says. "If they say you can't eat horse meat, next thing they'll say you can't eat goat. It's about the government telling you what you can and can't do."
It's not that she has anything personal against Sondergeld-Queen, she says, but her job is to make sure the auction goes smoothly. Plus, she doesn't like being directed by a foreigner. "What really burns me up is, you come over here from another country and tell me what to do?" Moore says. "Can you imagine me going to Germany and telling them what to do?"
As for claims that horses are subjected to brutal treatment during the auction and slaughter process, Moore, like most slaughter supporters, argues that banning the practice only results in a surplus of lame, neglected horses. Slaughter opponents maintain the animals can be absorbed by shelters and humanely put to death via veterinarian-assisted euthanasia.
"I love my animals, but I learned a long time ago that if a dog gets run over, I get me another one—there's lots of dogs that need love," Moore says. "If these activists in order to cook a meal had to go out and wring a chicken's neck, cut its head off, boil hot water, take its guts out, skin 'em and cook 'em for dinner, they wouldn't be running around disturbing everyone else's business."