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U.S. May Issue Rules on Horses' Treatment

Animals: Crowding and lack of food and water en route to slaughterhouses has been focus of concerns.


WASHINGTON — A lot of hope goes into buying or breeding a horse, but little thought into how a would-be Derby winner or family pet could wind up as dinner in Belgium, France, Mexico or Japan.

More than 100,000 horses, nonetheless, end their lives each year in one of the country's eight horse slaughterhouses, which send more than 20 tons of meat abroad. Annual slaughter rose well past 300,000 in the late 1980s when changes in tax law and a poor economy caused owners to thin herds.

Horses may take days to reach plants in Connecticut, Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Texas, most often in low-slung "potbelly" trucks designed for shorter-legged cattle and hogs.

No rules govern how much rest, food or water the doomed horses get, nor how crowded the trailers may be. But now, the Agriculture Department is studying possible rules to protect horses during transportation to slaughter.

"There is that potential for mishandling, inhumane conditions," said Tim Cordes, an Agriculture Department veterinarian. "Certainly the possibility of that happening is higher than there is with other animals going to slaughter."

Cordes, who has just completed a fact-finding tour of horse auctions, said rules should come out in 1998 or 1999. A lot depends on how much money the department gets to do the job.

The workings will be watched not only by the horse industry and animal welfare groups, but also by the cattle, chicken, hog and sheep businesses.

Congress said only horses would be covered. Still, the livestock industry worries that this could be the first step toward more regulation.

The 2.5-million-member Humane Society of the United States, meanwhile, took the unusual step of hiring a Washington law firm to help it push through regulations that resemble the strict bill it had originally backed.

The few paragraphs that ended up in the 1996 farm bill pushed for far less than the original measure did.

Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), a thoroughbred owner, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a resident of a state where horses are revered, introduced the horse-protection bills little more than a year ago. Their action followed reports by the Humane Society, horse publications and newspapers on the treatment of horses bound for slaughter.

Unwanted horses, whether healthy, lame or sick, young or old--even foals--were crammed into the trucks and denied food, rest or water on journeys that lasted days, the reports said. Fighting and overcrowding ensured that some horses never made it, or ended the trip severely injured.

The original bills spelled out requirements for rest periods (eight hours after 24 hours of travel), head room, veterinarians' certificates and ownership records.

The House Agriculture Committee, more interested in livestock than pets, took away the specific directions and only authorized the rules.

Brent Heberlein, general manager of the Beltex Corp. plant in Forth Worth, Texas, said the issue is complicated, with little research data to guide regulations.

Although horses may need rest breaks, loading and unloading is stressful and dangerous. And you can't prescribe water breaks based on how often humans get thirsty.

"We have a vested interest in having the animals travel in the best possible condition," he said, because stress levels affect the quality of meat.

The horse haulers who would talk said they've taken steps on their own to protect horses--such as keeping stallions and geldings apart from mares to prevent fighting, shifting loads, and shunning the whip or prod.

Steve Swenson, part owner of Manley Truck Dispatch Inc. in Gretna, Neb., said he will only ship across the state to Central Nebraska Packing Inc. in North Platte, because the longer trips to more distant slaughterhouses became a headache.

"They were always wanting to load four or five extra head," he said, adding that he was pressured to make nonstop trips.

"If they were going to make regulations, they might make regulations on how tight they can be packed in there," said David Diefenderfer, a Belle Fourche, S.D., hauler who also raises thoroughbreds and quarter horses--definitely not for slaughter. "But if they're going to do that, then do it for all livestock."

Diefenderfer says the slaughter market is a stark fact of the horse economy. The last sale helps recover some of the first dollars spent and control the horse population--estimated at 4 million to 6 million. And burial opportunities are limited.

"Your riding-horse market, your performance-horse market--these markets, like it or not, are based in part on the canner-horse market."

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