09/15/2005 12:00AM

Stop the slaughter permanently

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The U.S. Congress seems awash these days in vital business. Aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina tops the agenda, followed closely by hearings into the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Above this din, it is hard for a lonely little amendment to be heard. But when it happens, the next sound you hear could be the slamming of the doors at the three remaining horse slaughterhouses in the United States.

The organized opponents of horse slaughter are holding their collective breath in anticipation of the passage of the Ensign/Byrd Horse Slaughter Amendment to the U.S. Agricultural Department's 2006 appropriations bill. If adopted, the amendment would de-fund USDA inspection of facilities that engage in the slaughter of horses and the export of horsemeat to foreign countries.

Without USDA inspectors, any slaughter facility trying to market its meat across state lines - in this case to Europe or Asia - would be in violation of the U.S. Code of Regulations, Title IX, part 302.1(a), which reads:

"Inspection under the regulations in this subchapter is required at every establishment . . . in which any livestock are slaughtered for transportation or sale as articles of commerce."

There are exceptions, such as private citizens slaughtering meat for their own use, or custom slaughter for private individuals, but the slaughterhouses of Texas and Illinois fall under neither category.

"I feel very good the amendment will pass," said Christopher Heyde on Thursday.

Heyde is the Capitol Hill point man for the National Horse Protection Coalition. (In the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter is a member of the board of Tranquility Farm, a coalition supporter.) He derives his optimism from the lopsided support of a similar amendment attached to the Agriculture Appropriations bill that was passed by the House of Representatives last June. The vote was 269-158.

"This would stop them for a year," Heyde said, referring to the foreign-owned horsemeat slaughterhouses operating in Texas and Illinois. "But that isn't the solution. We shouldn't be doing this every year. Let's end this once and for all."

He's right. The issue should be ancient history. As recently as 1990, slightly more than 300,000 horses were slaughtered in the United States and their meat sold abroad. The most reliable recent numbers have the current total closer to 60,000 horses slaughtered each year.

H.R. 503 is a bill that would amend the Horse Protection Act to outlaw the transport, purchase, selling, or donation of horses to be slaughtered for human consumption. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives last February by Rep. John Sweeney of New York and bears the co-sponsorship of 115 fellow members, including Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, Mary Bono and Henry Waxman of California, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and Katherine Harris of Florida. This pretty much defines full spectrum support.

H.R. 503 was sent to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and has been languishing in the Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection sub-committee chaired by Rep. Cliff Stearns, whose Florida district includes the horse rich region of Ocala. Interested constituents can call him at either (202) 225-5744 in Washington or (352) 351-8777 in Ocala to share their thoughts on the anti-slaughter bill.

Stearns has taken no overtly public position on the bill, but it may be come as a surprise to some that the American Association of Equine Practitioners has maintained rigid opposition to H.R. 503. The AAEP noted as recently as last May in a widely disbursed e-mail memo that "such a bill would have highly negative welfare effects on unwanted or unusable horses," and that the captive bolt method of rendering horses unconscious with a pistol-propelled spike to the skull prior to slaughter "is one of the most humane methods for euthanizing unwanted and unusable horses when an owner is faced with an end-of-life decision."

This is true, but only if the owner is determined his horse be slaughtered. To end the life of an unwanted horse, there are far more humane methods of euthanasia through lethal injection.

Slaughterhouses, on the other hand, are not allowed to use drugs to knock out animals prior to the butchering process. As for the "humane" nature of the captive bolt, there is enough anecdotal evidence about misfires and off-target shots to turn the strongest stomach.

"Horses have always been mistreated," said John Hettinger, the principal owner of Fasig-Tipton Sales, member of The Jockey Club, and founder of Blue Horse Charities for horse welfare. "That's the reason the ASPCA was born, because of the mistreatment of carriage horses in New York. Because callous and irresponsible people have always been with us, and always will be.

"But to say those 60,000 horses would all be mistreated - or half of them, or even a quarter - I think is absurd," Hettinger went on. "The slaughter of horses is a convenient garbage pail, and nothing more. But the issue won't be decided by me, or the AAEP. It will be decided by the American people and the U.S. Congress."

Despite the apparently growing support of anti-slaughter measures, Christopher Heyde continues to ride close herd on the issue.

"Everyone said it would be so easy," Heyde said. "But no matter how good your issue, somebody will always come to Washington to lobby against it.

"What really gets me is that this could have been over a long time ago," Heyde said, "and all of the money and effort we've spent on this could have been spent on rescuing horses identified as unwanted."