09/08/2006 12:00AM

Battle won, yet war rages on


It should have been a day of great celebration, of cheering the TV screen and champagne toasts. But John Hettinger, the heart and soul of the forces battling the slaughter of horses in the United States, couldn't bear to watch.

"I did all that I could for the cause," said Hettinger from his Akindale Farm near Pawling, N.Y. "But I'm not in as good health as I used to be, and I decided it would be too upsetting. So I got on my horse, went for a ride, then had a couple glasses of wine and went to bed. The miracle is that I was able to sleep."

When he awoke, it was to the news that the House of Representatives had passed HR 503 - better known as the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act - by a vote of 263-146, after three hours of debate and more than four years of backroom political wrangling. Hettinger described his reaction to the House vote as "guarded."

"As long as anything is up for consideration in Washington, D.C., you can be sure that it will be decided on any basis except merit," Hettinger said. "I know that if it gets to the floor of the Senate, it will pass. I know that if it does not get to the floor of the Senate, it will be because the usual suspects are at work. They got their head handed to them yesterday, so it's about time they gave democracy a chance."

The "usual suspects" on Hettinger's list of those opposing an end to the slaughter of American horses includes the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Association, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"I was thinking of running an ad in the Form," Hettinger said, "directed to the AAEP and the American Quarter Horse Association, saying 'Look, as far as we're concerned the success of HR 503 yesterday means there are no winners or losers - except for the horse. And we wish you would come aboard. By the same token, we know that if this does not come up for a vote in the Senate, it will be because of machinations by you people, and the cattlemen.' "

Hettinger was right about one thing. Some of the opposition raised to HR 503 during the House floor debate would have raised his blood pressure to dangerous heights. The same talking points were heard - over and over - that the 90,000 or so "unwanted" horses slaughtered each year would become a burden. That slaughter provided a "humane" alternative for owners who needed to rid themselves of their animals. And that the bill was an attack on "property rights" that would lead down a slippery slope. The possible effects of ending horse slaughter were passionately described by Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, where two of the three slaughterhouses are located.

"If anyone thinks there's any reason for Congress to stop with a regulation of how we govern horses and not go right ahead and say what owners ought to do to their pigs and their cattle, or their dogs and their cats, or their fish in the aquarium, then you haven't realized the consequences of this bill," Thornberry said. With a straight face.

John Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado, waxed emotionally about his family ties to horses, through four generations of ranchers, before insisting that HR 503 "would have very serious consequences on our agricultural community."

"What will happen when I'm out riding, rounding up my cattle, and my horse falls into a prairie dog hole and breaks his leg?" Salazar wondered. "Will I not be able to send him to some rendering facility? What is the next step? Will people take away our right to be able to go out and hunt elk?"

Goldfish and elk aside, the supporters of HR 503 had any number of advocates to refute such specious claims, including bill sponsors Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) and John Sweeney (R-New York), who yielded a few minutes of his time to Christoper Shays, his Republican colleague from Connecticut.

"It does not remove the rights of owners to do what they want with their horses," Shays said. "Under HR 503, owners can humanely euthanize sick, dangerous, or old horses. Horses can continue to be kept by their owners, can be sold to new homes, or placed in one of the many horse sanctuaries located across the country. The way a society treats its animals, particularly horses, speaks to the core values and priorities of its citizens. Horses are not just companions and recreational animals. They are a vital part of our nation's culture and history."

"Now we lay the groundwork to see if we can swiftly move it through the Senate," said Chris Heyde of the National Horse Protection Coalition. "The support is there."

John Hettinger can be forgiven, though, if he waits to believe it until he sees it. And yet, even if something goes awry, Hettinger will not give up fighting those who oppose an end to the slaughter of horses on American soil.

"If this isn't ended by the time I go out, I have provided in my will for them to have no peace," the 72-year-old Hettinger vowed. "And I mean that. That's the only thing I'm in a position to guarantee - they will have no peace."