Five Years After Horse Slaughter Ends in Texas, Legislature Mulls Making it Legal

The fight to close down Dallas Crown, the infamous horse slaughterhouse in Kaufman, was a knock-down drag-out type of thing. Residents and city officials, tired of the stench and the horse blood that known to overwhelm the sewer system and back up into bath tubs, began fighting to have the Belgian-owned abattoir shut down in the 1980s, but their arsenal was small. Dallas Crown was hit with code violations by the dozens -- 481 during one 19-month period, per former Mayor Paula Bacon -- but plant officials began denying entry to city inspectors and demanding a separate jury trial for each of the violations, a process that would all but bankrupt the city.

It wasn't until plant opponents discovered an apparently forgotten 1949 Texas law that banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption that things began to shift. The city sued the plant in federal court, ultimately prevailing after the Supreme Court declined to review a 2007 appeals court decision ordering Dallas Crown and Beltex, an unaffiliated horse slaughter plant in Fort Worth, to close.

"The vultures have quit coming back quite so much," Bacon said. That's a particular blessing for the hospital patients, where Bacon said the birds had the habit of perching on window ledges and tap-tap-tapping at the window.

State legislators are now mulling whether outlawing horse slaughter is such a good thing. The Senate Committee on Agriculture & Rural Affairs has been given an interim charge -- sort of like a committee's homework assignment for when the legislature's not in session -- to "review the impact of state laws relating to the closure of horse slaughter facilities across the United States" and "analyze the impact on the equine industry and agricultural sector of the Texas economy."

The committee had a hearing in July during which it took testimony from a half dozen experts and the public about the horse slaughter. Ken Hodges, an associate legislative director for the Farm Bureau, was one of the people who testified. The horse slaughter issue is a touchy subject and not one he's eager to talk about, but he does think it should be allowed.

Livestock producers tend to operate on a shoestring, he said, prone to the vagaries of weather and market. It's a living, but a tough one in which revenue and expenses are always neck-and-neck. The option to send a worn-out work horse to slaughter is the most cost effective option.

"We don't like mistreating animals, and this is not what this is about. We want there to be adequate, humane guildeines in place for the slaughter once an animal is deceased," Hodges said. At the same time "If it can be used as a protein source or a delicacy in some countries, we don't see why it shouldn't be."

Economically, it makes perfect sense. Americans don't eat horse meat, but people in Japan and some European countries do. Why not send them our used-up equines and make a couple of bucks instead of leaving the market to Canada and Mexico? For most people stateside, of course, it's a moral and not an economic issue. We regard horses, whether the position is logically consistent or not, more as pets than as livestock and thus blanch at the thought of killing them for so crass a reason as to make meat.

There are other issues, too. Horse slaughterhouses are foul operations by definition, and U.S. plants, Dallas Crown in particular, made it clear they had no intention of being accommodating neighbors. Then there is the worming paste and other substances that American horse owners tend to use on their animals.

"It says clearly on the packaging: 'Not for food animals,'" Bacon said.

The discussion in the legislature right now is just that: a discussion. Hodges doesn't think there will be a big push to change the law quite yet. The memories of the very impassioned fight over the issue during the 2003 session linger, and he's not sure anyone is ready to introduce a bill right now to change the rules on horse slaughter. There's also the issue of federal law, which he said currently allows slaughter for human consumption under close monitoring by an arm of the USDA. Congress isn't currently funding the program, meaning horses can't be legally slaughtered.

Skip Trimble, a Dallas attorney and animal welfare advocate who was instrumental in the legal fight against Dallas Crown, isn't so sure that legislators will lay low on the slaughter question in the session that starts in January.

"I hope so, but if I were a gambling man, on the question of will they or will there not be (a pro-horse slaughter bill introduced in the next session), I would put my money on the yes side of that bet."

But Hodges and Trimble both agree on one thing: any legislative fight will be heated, and t will be close.

"Will it pass? that would be a real tossup," Trimble said.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson