LANDER — At least two Wyoming groups are considering opening horse slaughterhouses in the state after Congress passed legislation allowing USDA inspection of horse meat and plants, a proponent says.
State Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, is a member of the United Horsemen. She said her group formed the company Unified Equine to explore the creation of a horse meat processing plant in Wyoming.
The possibility only opened Nov. 18, when President Barack Obama signed an agriculture spending bill. The bill reversed a 2006 decision by Congress prohibiting U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections for horse meat and plants. The last horse slaughterhouse in the country closed in 2007.
Without the inspections, horse meat couldn’t be transported out of the state, Wallis said. So, technically, slaughterhouses weren’t banned, except in a couple of states that passed laws prohibiting the businesses. But it is impossible to run slaughterhouses without inspections, Wallis said.
Wallis and United Horsemen, as well as other pro-slaughter groups, pushed Congress to allow USDA inspections of horse slaughterhouses.
Wallis said the three-member Wyoming delegation supported allowing such slaughterhouses, especially Rep. Cynthia Lummis.
“Restoring responsible and humane processing is a good step towards dealing with the ever-growing problem of horse overpopulation on private and public lands in Wyoming,” Lummis said in a media release. “More work remains but the lift on the ban is important for the humane management of horses.”
Wild horses weren’t impacted by the current legislation because they are federally protected when on federal land, both Wallis and Wyoming Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Cindy Wertz said.
“That’s a whole other fight we aren’t fighting today,” Wallis said.
Wallis hopes the federal government will see the success of slaughterhouses in dealing with horses on nonfederal land and eventually consider slaughter as a population management tool for wild horses.
It will take 30 to 90 days, minimum, before any horse slaughter plant could open in the United States because of regulations, Wallis said.
In Wyoming, it will take even longer because there aren’t existing sites that could reopen.
“It’s fairly certain we will not be the first state to have one open,” Wallis said.
Wallis expects Wyoming will eventually have at least one plant. Her group initially looked at the feasibility of building a multipurpose slaughterhouse for cattle, bison and horses, Wallis said. The group tabled those plans, first choosing to work to get the federal government to allow the needed inspections. Now the original plans are in motion.
Wallis said her group is considering a plant in Platte County, an area with a large agriculture base and feedlots. The area also could qualify for rural development funding, Wallis said. And the community, which Wallis and other members of the group have talked with, is supportive because of the economic benefits, she said.
The plant would employ 80 to 100 people with “good-paying jobs with benefits,” she said.
Because of construction and the siting process, it would be at least a year before the plant could open.
“That’s like the best-case scenario,” Wallis said.
At least one other group is also exploring opening a horse slaughterhouse in Wyoming.
Wallis said a group in Riverton contacted her to talk about the possibility of opening a plant. The group’s plans are not yet public and Wallis said they are in the early stages.
Wallis fought hard to allow horse slaughterhouses in the U.S.
“Horses are livestock and always have been,” she said. “Some people consider them pets and that’s fine. But there’s a thriving, world-wide market for horse meat.”
Economically, slaughterhouses help ranchers, who often have a finite amount of resources, Wallis said. When a horse, which is a working animal, is no longer of use, a slaughterhouse allows a rancher to earn some money while also removing the burden of caring for an animal he or she doesn’t need, Wallis said.
“We love our animals, we take care of them, we respect them,” Wallis said. “One of the ways we do that is by making sure their lives are not wasted.”
Slaughterhouses usually bid on horses at auction, Wallis said, looking for a specific number of horses or sizes.
Wallis said horses taken to slaughterhouses are killed humanely, in the same process used for other livestock. Horses are led to a kill box and within seconds are shot once with a bullet or with a penetrating bolt into the brain. Death is instantaneous, Wallis said.
“To many of us, this is a very moral, ethical way to deal with horses you don’t need for something else,” she said.
The meat is then sold.
Much of the rest of the world considers horse just another meat.
In some countries, horse meat is an affordable alternative to beef. In other areas of the world, specific cuts of horse meat can go for $20 a pound and are a delicacy, Wallis said.
Wallis isn’t sure of the potential market for horse meat in the U.S. There are some people who have traveled and eaten horse meat who might buy it, but she believes it will primarily be an export product.
Not everyone in Wyoming is excited about the prospect of killing horses.
“I find it disgusting,” said Patricia Fazio of Cody.
Fazio has a degree in agriculture management and specializes in wild horse issues. She doesn’t consider herself an animal rights activist, but instead an animal welfare activist. She isn’t as radical as many groups, she said.
In fact, she said in a phone interview Thursday that she was preparing to cook a New York strip steak.
“But a horse is not a cow,” she said.
Cattle are bred for consumption. Horses are not, Fazio said.
In the U.S., horses are a symbol of the American West and most often now are used as pets, show animals or for competition, she said.
They aren’t livestock, she said. “They’re a friend. And you don’t eat your buddy.”
Horses, even old ones, can provide companionship, Fazio said, adding that people don’t want to eat their cats and dogs just because they don’t work around the house.
“But they make my heart beat softer and they’re loving companions,” Fazio said. “What’s wrong with companion animals?”
Even ranchers who use horses for work don’t breed them for meat, she said. If a horse is sick, it is medicated and treated, and that contaminates the meat, she said. They aren’t fed with the assumption their diet could one day also be ingested by humans.
Fazio also questions the way horses are killed, worrying the animal might move in fear and if the shot isn’t exact its death might not be instantaneous.
Proponents of slaughterhouses say unwanted horses are turned loose on public land, or abused. Wyoming BLM officials didn’t have numbers on how many horses are abandoned on public land.
Fazio said rescue missions across the country take and care for unwanted horses.
Fazio doesn’t think anyone will actually open a slaughterhouse in Wyoming because the risk of legislation banning inspection could easily return. But if someone does, she’s prepared to fight.