01/29/2016 4:46PM

Hovdey: Without louder voices, SAFE Act passage unlikely

Email

It takes a durable, well-developed sense of dark humor to be working as an animal welfare lobbyist in Washington these days, especially if your species of legislative passion is the horse.

Chris Heyde of the Animal Welfare Institute has been fighting the good fight for horses long enough now to know that great leaps and bounds are made in small increments. As AWI deputy director of government and legal affairs, Heyde is the point guard for most of the equine-related issues going before Congress, a list that is led by the effort to eradicate the spectre of horse slaughter in the United States once and for all.

At this point, America is not a country where there exists the legal commercial slaughter of horses to produce meat for human consumption. The United States is, however, a vigorous enabler of the international industry. Estimates vary, so let’s go low at the figure of 100,000 American horses transported legally across accommodating state borders to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, with thousands of registered Thoroughbreds among them.

Last April, the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act was introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill would effectively ban the sale and transport of horses for slaughter in the United States. The bill has the quiet support of most Thoroughbred racing organizations, and polls indicate that the American public is strongly in favor of banning a practice that goes so contrary to the nation’s historical relationship with horses as companions, co-workers, and athletic performers.

So where does the bill stand today, nine months after its introduction?

“It’s still in committee,” said Heyde.

Sigh.

“A lot of activists get mad at us not moving the bill,” Heyde said. “Then you step back and look at the bigger picture. Congress is historically lazy, but anyone who has been following politics knows they have pushed that to new heights over the past three or four years.”

Yet Heyde and his colleagues soldier on, pressing the issue in the halls of Congress. The SAFE Act has 184 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives – Rep. Gwen Graham, a Republican from Florida’s 2nd District, signed on just this week – while the corresponding bill in the Senate has 29 co-sponsors.

“That’s what keeps us all going,” Heyde said. “The support for the measure is as strong as ever, and you hear from people, ‘I can’t believe horse slaughter is still around.’ ”

The numbers of co-sponsors can be meaningless if the leadership of the chamber is dead set against a bill moving forward. Still, it is helpful for constituents to know where their elected representatives stand.

Both senators from New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and California support the SAFE Act, as does South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, New Mexico’s Tom Udall, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

Among the several senators currently campaigning for nomination as president, Bernie Sanders of Vermont has signed on as a co-sponsor, while Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky have not.

Of course, if there is no political price to pay for lack of support of an issue like the slaughter of horses, then the practice will continue to be a part of the cultural fabric. Without an outright ban, Heyde and his legislative team have been forced into an annual workaround through the appropriations process that essentially defunds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspections of horse slaughterhouses.

“That’s where a lot of our energy goes, and that’s not ideal,” Heyde said. “Our opponents will say defunding inspections to close domestic slaughterhouses only makes it worse, because now they all go to Mexico or Canada. I’m not sure how much worse that is, since the practice of horse slaughter is pretty horrendous wherever it takes place. It’s like that old joke: I wouldn’t want to get hit with a bat in the back of the head or in the face.”

See what I mean about a sense of humor?

If Heyde and supporters of the SAFE Act could wave that magic wand the bill would be out of committee and onto the floor of both chambers next week. But 2016 is a presidential election year, and what has been grinding slowly over the past four years will pretty much sludge to a halt.

“There have been even fewer days in session scheduled for this term than in the past,” Heyde said. “For anything to get passed will be difficult. Most of our time and energy is spent making sure the appropriations bill defunds inspections.”

Heyde would love to have someone or something light a fire under the Thoroughbred industry and leaders step forward to run with the cause of banning horse slaughter, recognizing that domestic horses are not bred or raised to be part of the meat industry and therefore should not enter that food chain.

“If you don’t care about horse slaughter, you should really care about horses becoming a meat animal,” Heyde said. “If horse slaughter comes back, it will become a heavily regulated meat industry. The USDA will have to step up its regulation, especially on giving horses even the therapeutic medications that are regulated so heavily in meat animals.

“I explained that to a congressman,” Heyde said. “That pretty much every domesticated horse has legal drugs in them that would ban them from meat consumption. He said, ‘Is it all being exported?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘Then who cares?’ ”

That’s not funny.