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Published October 21, 2011, 05:32 AM

Petition seeks horse processing restoration

MITCHELL, S.D. - At one time, there were more than 20 horse processing facilities scattered throughout the country, but today, the number of plants that can process the animals legally has dwindled to just a few. Now, horse producers and national associations are stepping in to try and turn the tide.

By: Julie Buntjer, Mitchell (S.D.) Daily Republic

MITCHELL, S.D. - At one time, there were more than 20 horse processing facilities scattered throughout the country, but today, the number of plants that can process the animals legally has dwindled to just a few. Now, horse producers and national associations are stepping in to try and turn the tide.

As of Wednesday, nearly 4,400 people had signed an online petition to the Obama Administration to restore humane horse slaughter. The action, the petition states, would improve horse welfare, stop needless and wasteful suffering of horses and create jobs. At least 5,000 signatures are needed by Friday for the White House staff to review the petition, authored by a Wyoming woman, and have a chance of being heard by legislators.

The petition is in response to a study completed last year by the Government Accountability Office that found consequences resulting from the federal government's decision to stop funding USDA inspectors in horse slaughter facilities. The last time horses were processed for human consumption in the United States was in 2009, after animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded an end to horse slaughter.

Since the government removed USDA inspectors from plants, essentially banning horse meat from being processed for consumption, the horse market has been impacted.

"(The government has) seen what it's done to the horse business, it's almost crippled it," said Wade Ellerbroek, a horse producer and horse exhibitor from rural Sibley, Iowa.

"Then, you throw in poor economic conditions across the country, and it's led to horses not being treated as well as they should be."

Ellerbroek said horses sold for processing used to be worth about 85 cents per pound. Now, because that market is no longer available, the market has bottomed out.

"Without human consumption, I get a whole lot less," he added.

Few homes for horses

Cleone Uecker, who operates South Dakota Horse Sales at Corsica, hosts nine to 10 horse sales per year. She's seen the price for horses drop significantly in the last few years.

"Prices for the big fat ones have dropped 50 percent," she said, adding that a lot of the colts, yearlings, thin stallions and 2-year-old horses can sell for $5 to $25. At her last sale, the top 10 horses averaged $4,000 - they were "good looking saddle horses - geldings," she said, that went to New York or Wyoming and still had years of productivity in them. By comparison, the bottom 10 horses at the sale "brought nothing."

Ellerbroek said he's heard many stories of horses abandoned and neglected because their owners can't afford to feed them, and can't afford to truck them - many times long distances - to a market where the animals can be sold.

What's happening as a result is people are abandoning their horses. Out West, domesticated horses can often be seen roaming with wild horse herds.

"Many of them have brands on their hips," said Ellerbroek of those domestic horses. "They were turned loose by their owner and, in their conscience, they've turned their horse loose on the prairie. In reality, they've doomed (the horses) to a horrible situation. It's a sad deal."

Ellerbroek also knows people who have returned to their horse trailers after a show or sale and found abandoned horses in their trailers.

Uecker said her employees are told to monitor the yards closely when people bring horses to the sale. She won't take any crippled, blind or thin horses because she can't find buyers for them. At their last sale, she said someone slipped a horse in at the end of the yard that had a cut foot.

"Nobody would have bid on it," she said. "We had 10 novalue horses at that sale. The majority of the people took them home because I charge a $125 disposal fee."

With hundreds of horses brought in for each sale, Uecker is also able to bring in the buyers. Still, many of them are looking for the "big horses" if they are going to haul them to Canada for processing.

"It takes a tremendous amount of paperwork (to take them across the border), and they won't spend the money to ship the (thin ones)," she said. The thin horses ended up being sold and put on feed, but with feed prices at $180 per ton, buyers aren't willing to pay much more than $10 or $20 for a thin horse.

Uecker said the U.S. needs to have a place for culled horses, but she doesn't have much hope in the petition for restoration of humane horse slaughter.

Animal rights groups filled with uninformed city dwellers outnumber agricultural and rural people, she said, and they have a way of swaying legislators.

"Because of their lack of understanding on how the livestock industry works, they can vote in various representatives in government that will do what they want them to do," added Ellerbroek.

Optimistic outcome

The only horse slaughter done in the U.S. today is to supply zoos with horse meat for protein-dependent tigers and lions; while Canada and Mexico both have processing facilities for human consumption. Particularly in Canada, Uecker said, the processing facilities are full and buyers have to hold horses awhile before they can get them in.

Ellerbroek said the horse processing business in Mexico is deemed to be not as humane as the practices once used in the United States, which is a concern for all horse producers.

He encourages not just horse producers, but all livestock producers to sign the petition.

"Without starting a fight with the Humane Society of the United States, they're going to make life tougher for the cattle producer, hog producer and people with poultry," he said. "We kind of need to stick together because we all have the livestock mentality."

That livestock mentality, Ellerbroek explained, is a belief that horses are no different than hogs, cattle and poultry. Some in the industry raise horses like pets, and that's OK, he added.

"It's my personal property," Ellerbroek said of his horses. "There are people that think that horses have rights. They don't have rights, but they deserve to be treated fairly - fed, sheltered and processed humanely."

Ellerbroek said many horse associations are in support of the humane horse slaughter petition, including the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), of which he is a member. The AQHA has 6,000 members in Iowa, and approximately 300,000 nationwide.

As they begin to spread the word among their membership alone, Ellerbroek said they should have no trouble reaching the minimum 5,000 signatures for the petition to be evaluated.

Speaking optimistically, he said he'd like to see humane horse slaughter and USDA inspections reestablished within the next year.

"There are groups of people who will run the processing plants," Ellerbroek said. "The government has to hire the inspectors."

People who wish to add their name to the petition may go to https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions, then click on open petitions, find "filter by issue" and select "agriculture."

Then scroll through the petitions until you find the one referencing restoring humane horse slaughter.

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