YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

Riding to the Rescue of Horses

Animals: Backers of initiative planned for November ballot want to ban slaughter for human consumption.


CARMEL — Angel's days were numbered. No doubt about it.

Once a beloved pet, the petite white pony was now a starving wisp of skin stretched over bone. Her hooves--untrimmed for months--were grotesque, like gnarled driftwood. Try as she might, Angel could scarcely walk.

When the pony hobbled into a Monterey County auction yard last summer, the slaughterhouse buyers sized her up, made some quick calculations and prepared to bid. But fate intervened, and Angel was soon munching hay at a Carmel sanctuary for victims of equine abuse.

Her story ended happily, but the lives of thousands of other horses that wind up on the auction block do not.

Each year, truckloads of California horses are slaughtered and shipped to Europe and Japan, where the meat is popular as a sweeter, lower-fat alternative to beef.

Some are old and badly injured. But others--like Angel--are merely unlucky castoffs, victims of circumstance or an owner's callous change of heart.

When backers of a California initiative to ban the sale of horses for slaughter launched their campaign last year, it was unclear how the public would respond. Now we know: Voters are signing the anti-slaughter petitions in droves, virtually assuring the measure a place on the November ballot.

"Horses are companion animals--revered and loved like cats and dogs," said Cathleen Doyle of the California Equine Council, a nonprofit protection group. "They should not be ending up on someone's plate."

The initiative would ban the sale and killing of California horses for human consumption. If the measure becomes law, California would be the first state to bar owners from selling their horses for human consumption.

Doyle and two other women--Long's Drug Store heiresses Sherry DeBoer and Sidne Long--are the brains and bucks behind the ballot quest, but they have enlisted some influential friends.

A host of celebrities have endorsed their goal--among them Peter Falk, Diane Keaton and Stephanie Powers--as have Olympic riders, several thoroughbred racetracks and the district attorneys of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

For expert help, supporters have turned to a seasoned consultant with a winning record in the hit-or-miss arena of initiative drives. The consultant--Ken Masterton--says backers need 477,000 valid voter signatures to qualify their measure for the ballot, a goal he calls within reach.

"It's hard to disagree with a campaign to ban horse slaughter," said Masterton, who estimates that supporters will spend $1 million on the cause.

California rivals Texas as the largest horse-owning state, with an estimated 750,000 animals. It is also a leading supplier of horses for meat.

Although horse meat has never been a staple on American menus, foreign demand sustains a slaughter industry regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, 113,499 horses were killed for export nationwide, USDA statistics show. That figure is down significantly from 1989, when a record 342,877 horses were slaughtered after changes in the federal tax code prompted some breeders to thin their herds.

The declining number killed has cut the ranks of slaughterhouses as well, a change that actually makes things worse for the horses. Because there are so few plants--a total of four, in Texas, Illinois and Nebraska--horses must travel long distances to slaughter, often under harrowing conditions.

Sometimes packed tightly without regard for sex, size or physical condition, they may journey as long as 36 hours without food, water or rest, according to the Humane Society of the United States, which has investigated the slaughter industry. Fighting and problems with loading ensure that some horses arrive injured.

In addition, many horses from California travel in double-decker trucks designed for cattle and other livestock--trucks with ceilings too low for horses, the Humane Society said.

"Especially when they're going up and down the ramp while loading, they tend to hit the top of their heads and faces," said Carolyn Stull, an animal welfare specialist at UC Davis who has just completed a university-funded study of commercial horse transport.

While outraged at the transportation methods, Doyle and other initiative backers decry the slaughter process itself, which they describe as cruel and poorly regulated by overworked federal inspectors.

An undercover video recorded by the Humane Farming Assn. shows that horses are chased into a narrow chute and shot in the skull with a metal spike designed to render them unconscious. They are then hung by a hind leg, their throats are slit, their blood is drained and they are dismembered.

Critics say that if the animal is properly stunned by the spike, it can be rendered instantly unconscious.

Los Angeles Times Articles