Pa. considers bill to protect horses on way to slaughter Doomed animals face long last journey in 'torture trailers'

March 27, 1998|By knight ridder/tribune

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. - They are paraded through the auction ring at New Holland Sales Stables in Lancaster County: Amish buggy horses, racing thoroughbreds, petting-zoo ponies.

The ones that can ride or work fetch a decent price.

The rest, young and old, go to the "killers." That's what horse people call the slaughterhouses.

The doomed animals are loaded onto trailers, sometimes double-deckers - "torture trailers," critics call them, because the low ceilings and slick floors are designed for cattle and hogs, not equines.

Then the horses endure journeys hundreds of miles long to meet their fate: a bolt through the skull at slaughterhouses in Canada, Texas or the Midwest, before their meat is shipped overseas for dinner tables in Europe.

Now, critics want to pass a law in Pennsylvania - not to ban the slaughter, but to take the same steps New York and other states have taken: to protect horses from suffering on their last ride.

A bill now pending in the state House of Representatives would regulate the transporting of horses - and outlaw hauling them in trailers built for smaller animals.

A typical double-decker trailer can have as little as 5 feet, 7 inches of space from floor to ceiling.

A typical thoroughbred, standing upright, is well over 6 feet tall.

The bill's supporters, including some of the farms that breed horses, say open-air, two-tier trailers have caused broken legs, eye gouges, head gashes and trampling. They point to years of news stories about dead and injured horses found in trailers, and to a 1994 case in which New York authorities found frost-covered horses with open wounds inside a double-decker trailer in minus-35-degree temperatures.

'Horse popsicles'

Debra Whitson, the Essex County prosecutor who handled the case, said the animals looked like "horse popsicles."

"Our neighbors to the north have passed this legislation in an effort to stop what they refer to as 'torture trailers' from coming through their states," says Christine Berry, a Schuylkill County woman who is trying to rally support for changing Pennsylvania's law.

"Sit under your desk and you will have some idea what it is like to be forced into a vehicle that is too small and was designed for animals much shorter than you," says Berry, who worked for years at a horse-transport company. "And remember: no water, no food, no rest. And imagine other people crowded in with you pushing and shoving for their space also."

The bill she supports would limit horse transport to one level of a vehicle and require room for a horse to stand upright. Trailers would need anti-skid flooring and ramps designed for horses. The bill would require rest and water for horses traveling longer than 12 hours.

Horses bound for slaughter would need to be inspected by a veterinarian to determine if they are fit for shipment. Mares nursing foals, mares late in pregnancy and foals under six months or 600 pounds could not be shipped to slaughter. Violations of the law would be misdemeanors.

The bill's foes in the farm industry - Pennyslvania's largest - say it would be costly and hard to enforce. They say existing anti-cruelty laws suffice.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Thomas Gannon, a Delaware County Republican, says a hearing on the (( measure, House Bill 2127, could be held as early as May.

Though almost unheard-of in the United States, horse meat has been eaten for centuries in France, Belgium, Japan and elsewhere. Much of the horse meat served in Europe comes from Pennsylvania.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that 113,499 horses were slaughtered in the United States in 1996 for human consumption. The USDA had no figure for how many are shipped out of the country for slaughter.

Oliver Kemseke, vice president of Dallas Crown Inc., said his Texas plant takes in 300 to 400 horses a week, including loads from Pennsylvania about every two weeks. "We buy the end-of-career horses," said Kemseke. "The leftovers."

Kemseke, who is from Belgium, said slaughterhouses pay about 45 cents a pound for horses and the meat sells in Europe for about 60 cents or more - with the best cuts getting as much as $6 a pound. North American horses make up as much as a fourth of the European market, he said.

In California, an initiative to outlaw the sale and killing of horses for human consumption is slated for the November ballot. California would be the first state with such a ban.

No such effort is under way in Pennsylvania. Supporters of the horse-transport bill say they have set their sights on an attainable goal, even if they revile the idea of horses being slaughtered.

"In Pennsylvania," says Berry, "it is realistic to make the last ride more humane."

A biblical injunction

Rep. Jim Lynch, a Warren County Republican, is sponsoring the horse-transport bill. He has bipartisan support from 20 co-sponsors and has received hundreds of letters of support. In five years as a lawmaker, he says, "I have had more correspondence on this bill than all the other ones combined."

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