Not What I Expected from AQHA

So, there's a good chance this post is only of interest to me, but the topic has me so fired up that I can't help but blog about it. Be forewarned, though...this is a long one.

Last week, Deebs contacted me about a bill she was working on on behalf of a client -- the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R.503/S.311). Basically, the bill will end the slaughter of horses and any domestic or international transport of live horses for human consumption.

"Who would be against this bill?" she asked.

I was curious, too. Who indeed? After all, the slaughtering of horses has all but been halted in the U.S. -- and if there was enough push to do that, why would anyone oppose this bill, which mainly prevents us from shipping horses to Canada or Mexico to be killed? (And often killed viscously: in Mexico, horses are often repeatedly stabbed in the spine to incapacitate them before they are hung up by a back leg and their throats are slit. Even in the instance where a bolt gun is used, it is not designed to kill the horse, only “stun” them. They are alive while “bled out” and some will remain conscious during later stages of slaughter, suffocating with their noses in a pool of blood.)

After doing a bit of research, I found out that one group that has actively lobbied against passage of this bill was none other than the American Quarter Horse Association -- an association that I've belonged to since I was eleven, and one that my family has poured a lot of money into through show fees, membership fees, magazine subscriptions, etc.

To say that I was shocked would be a gross understatement. But I work in politAelZ I live in a politically-charged city. I know that no issue is ever as cut-and-dried as it seems at first glance. And so, I figured that the AQHA must have good reasons for its position. And I set out to find out what those reasons were.

What I found was that the AQHA had reasons, but they weren't good by any means. Here's what its executive committee said in a letter detailing its position:

One of the major issues in the slaughter debate centers around personal property rights. AQHA believes that allowing animal-rights advocates to determine how we manage our horses opens the door to letting them put other limits on what we can or cannot do with our horses...AQHA respects the right of horse owners to manage their personal property as they choose, so long as the welfare of the American Quarter Horse is paramount to all other concerns.

Economics also comes into play. Other options for dealing with unwanted horses can be costly, and the last thing anyone would want to risk is having a horse neglected or abused because an owner might not have all the options available to him or her.

Each year in this country, between 4 and 6 million dogs and cats are euthanized at animal shelters. These shelters benefit from widespread public support and are funded by taxpayer dollars. If processing were not an option for unwanted horses, imagine finding homes for 100,000 horses each year or building an equine welfare system supported by taxpayers.

The first line of reasoning is obviously asinine. I don't think anyone is going to make a logical, honest-to-goodness, slippery-slope correlation between slaughtering horses and trail riding anytime soon. To be fair, when the House Appropriations Committee initially approved the funding bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Fiscal Year 2008, the language in the bill was so broadly-written that it would have had a far broader impact than it seemed intended to have. But, common sense prevailed and this provision has long-since been removed.

The second line of reasoning -- that we would have to find homes for 100,000 horses a year that would otherwise be sent to slaughter -- seems reasonable at first, but appears to fall apart when deconstructed.

First off, consider this: between 1989 and 2004, when the number of slaughtered horses dropped by more than 270,000, there was no correlative spike in neglect or abuse of horses, and there was no outcry from the equine industry that more than 270,000 horses were left without homes (as AQHA says would happen now). In addition, it should be noted that that of the horses killed in U.S. slaughter plants in 2006, nearly four percent were imported from Canada. And in 2005, more than seven percent of the total horses slaughtered in U.S. plants were imported live from Canada.

It’s also estimated that more than 30,000 horses are stolen each year and then auctioned for slaughter -- further decreasing the number of horses who would otherwise need to find homes, because if slaughter is outlawed, there is suddenly no market for these horses.

Opponents to the Slaughter Prevention Act also site slaughter as an acceptable alternative for people who can't afford to put their horses down through euthanasia and pay for disposal. This makes my blood boil. The cost to euthanize and dispose of a horse is usually less than what it costs to house and feed a horse for a month. But I digress. There's a glitch in this reasoning, too. Killer-buyers -- the agents who scope out horse auctions on behalf of slaughterhouses -- don't buy up sickly, unusable horses that would otherwise need to be disposed of. On the contrary, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that more than 92 percent of horses at slaughterhouses are in “good” condition, and according to a study conducted by temple Grandin, an animal slaughter expert, 70 percent of all horses at the slaughter plants were in good, fat, or obese condition and 84 percent were of average age. Additionally, 96 percent had no behavioral issues whatsoever.

These horses need to be able to survive anywhere from 24 to 36 hours of horrible transport in hot, close quarters, usually with no food, water, or rest stops. And, killer-buyers get paid by the pound for the animals they bring in, so the more robust and healthy the horse is, the more likely it is that it will survive the trip, and fetch the killer-buyer a small profit. Not surprisingly, the majority of horses sent to slaughter are Quarter Horses -- nearly 80 percent -- because of their hearty build and because, as some critics have pointed out, the AQHA has no retirement program for its registered horses like some other organizations do. As one can imagine, most people who send their horses to auction don't realize they could easily end up in a slaughterhouse, and even worse, many killer-buyers actually outbid average Joes looking to buy a trail horse or horse for the family.

In the research I've done on this issue thus far, I have not found one shred of statistical information to support AQHA's claims that ending horse slaughter will give rise to neglect and abuse. AQHA sent me this white paper in response to my email to them...but in reading the footnotes, I was disheartened to find that the majority of evidence presented is anecdotal (unlike this study), and in addition, the white paper cites articles that have long since been discredited (here, here, here, and here).

To be fair, there seems to be anecdotal evidence that Illinois now has a problem with unwanted horses. But the real question, I think, is what effect the economic slowdown of late has had on the “unwanted horse” population. Methinks that might be more of a factor than a reduction in the number of horses slaughtered. How else to explain that when the DeKalb, Illinois slaughterhouse burned down in 2002, horse abandonment and abuse cases actually dropped?

But AQHA is apparently not one to let facts like this get in its way. In its position letter, AQHA also states that

If you agree with AQHA’s position, we’d appreciate it if you let us know and more importantly let your senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C., know. If you disagree, we want to hear from you, too, but please offer a constructive alternative, not just criticism. And remember, AQHA is about the horse and about educating owners on options they have. It is not about sensationalizing a very emotional issue.

First, let me just say that this is what AQHA claims is being "sensationalized" by proponents of the bill (warning, graphic images).

Furthermore, though, I'm curious as to how much money AQHA and others have syphoned into lobbying efforts against this bill. Because the thing is, there is a practical solution to this issue -- one that a single Massachusetts attorney, Steve Rei, undertook himself: he formed the National Equine Rescue Coalition and put together a database, with the help of the Humane Society and law enforcement, of rescue organizations willing and able to take in surplus horses if and when the proposed legislation goes into effect. He calls the 1 percent of horses who will need homes a "manageable number, only citing “adequate funding” as the major issue. I'm guessing that the lobbyists' fees for each of the 200+ members of the "Horse Welfare Coalition" combined could likely fund the absorption of those horses that would otherwise be slaughtered.

In its response to me via email this week, the AQHA again beat the “no solution” drum, noting that "The majority of AQHA's membership is opposed to the pending federal legislation as it does not provide for a means to care for the nearly 100,000 unwanted horses each year" that are sent to slaughter.

I have a hard time believing that a "majority" of AQHA members feel this way. I'm curious as to the polling they've done on that, and what the questions/set up to it looked like. In fact, most of the AQHA members that I've talked to since hearing about the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act had never heard of it.

And with annual revenue somewhere in the ballpark of $50 million and an Incentive Fund program that pays out more than $4 million dollars of “fun money just for showing” to eligible members, it kind of makes you wonder what AQHA, whose horses comprise 80 percent of those slaughtered, might have been able to come up with had they actually wanted to attempt to solve the problem.

And now I’m faced with an ethical dilemma. You see, in June of 2006, I bought a beautiful, black, and spunky Quarter Horse named The Ironman (a.k.a. Gino). I’ve literally been waiting since then for this summer, his three-year-old year. Every time I’ve taken him out of his stall, walked him down the aisle, clipped his whiskers, or felt the quiet rhythm of his lope beneath me, I’ve imagined marching into the show ring atop him. I’ve imagined what it would be like, once again, to spend hot summer weekend days bathing him, braiding him, hearing our name and number called at the end of a particularly good go, and hanging out with horse people who I practically grew up with.

But I’m having a difficult time justifying giving my hard-earned money to an organization that condones something as horrific as slaughtering horses because it sees no other obvious solution. An organization who thinks this, this, this or this is a necessary evil.

I don’t want to boycott AQHA. The shows it sponsors throughout Wisconsin and the rest of the country have become like second homes to me. I know many of those show grounds better than the back of my hand. I know how the shows work, who to talk to about what issue, and all of the other minor ins and outs involved.

When we were younger, getting ready to move from the house we grew up in to a new house, my little sister sobbed. When asked what was wrong, she hiccupped, “But I’m not going to know where any of the light switches are.” And this is how I feel, pondering leaving this association that I have known so long and, I thought, so well. A new association? New shows? New people? New rules? I’m afraid I won’t know where the light switches are.

But it’s something I think I’m going to just have to learn. Because I don’t think that I can square up with AQHA on this one, and I don’t think I can ignore it. I’d be surprised at who would be able to, once they took an honest, hard look at the issue.

Posted by Erin 12:13 PM

7 Comments:

  1. Krista said...
    Holy cow, Erin. I am so impressed with how knowledgeable you are on this topic. You certainly did your research.

    And that is absolutely appalling. Thankfully, I wasn't able to look at those pictures at work ("forbidden"), but I can only imagine how awful they are.

    I can understand your dilemma about whether to support the organization from this point further.

    I'd say no, but I'm irrational in that way.
    Deebs said...
    What if you decorated Gino with a "vote no on H.R.503/S.311" sign? Then, you could show him and let your AQHA friends/colleagues know you feel about the issue; possibly drumming up increased interest from other horse owners/lovers. Damn the man, Erin. Damn the man!
    Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...
    I found your blog through ELFs, and have been lurking for a while, but had to write after reading this post.

    As an animal lover, I was apalled... this is very sad, and it makes me very upset to read about animals getting treated in such an inhumane manner. Thank you for bringing light to this subject... your writing and research AND trail of thoughts/ideas is wonderful. I wish you luck with your dilema.

    I believe it was Ghandi who said something along the lines of, "A country cannot be judged based on how it's people are treated. No, a country is judged, based on how its animals are treated." Of course - he said it much more eloquently...

    Very thought provoking.

    Thanks for this...
    Alili said...
    A very thought provoking post, insightful and well done Erin. I am terribly saddened and appalled by this information,but thank you for bringing it to the attention of your readers. Such sadness.
    Pharmie said...
    A long post, but very educational! I read the whole thing. I don't think boycotting the org is a bad idea. I also think, though, that you could still go and be able to hang out with the people you've grown to be friends with and see it as a chance to educate others about the issues!
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