A milestone, not the end

September 26, 2005

Horse lovers celebrated a major achievement last week when they persuaded the Senate to join the House in voting overwhelmingly to prevent America's iconic animals from being slaughtered and shipped overseas to gourmet dinner tables.

But the legislative battle is far from over; much might depend on how well the horse community provides other options for the 90,000 animals that wind up at U.S. slaughterhouses each year.

And enthusiasts particularly concerned about the fate of America's wild horses must recognize that saving them from slaughter doesn't solve the fundamental problem of competition for public grazing lands that is driving horses off the range much faster than responsible new owners can be found for them through sale or adoption.

In fact, that problem is so complicated and emotional for politicians trying to maintain a balance between competing interests that it almost defies solution, says Sen. John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada, home to half the nation's remaining wild horses.

So Senator Ensign, a veterinarian, has taken the lead instead on outlawing the slaughter of horses for food - a policy that would protect "excess" wild horses as well as the domestic animals and pets that constitute the vast majority of horses that wind up on meat hooks in this country.

"This is one area that we can make a difference in," he explained.

Maybe. The legislation doesn't ban slaughter outright. Instead, it cuts off funds for conducting federal meat inspections on slaughtered horses. If enacted as part of the agriculture spending bill, it would not only affect operations at the three U.S. slaughterhouses that handle horses but also prevent horses from being shipped live for slaughter in Canada or Mexico.

Slaughter is objectionable for horses because it requires a cruel and horrifying death in order to preserve their value for human consumption.

Yet lobbyists for the slaughterhouses and other parts of the livestock industry will be working hard to get the anti-slaughter rider quietly tossed out when a final version of the spending bill is crafted by House and Senate negotiators. Horse advocates can't let them get away with it.

As with the wild horses, though, the ultimate safety and dignity of all these old, outgrown or otherwise unwanted horses rest primarily with the private groups and individuals who have championed their cause.

These animals need love, care, money and homes to keep them off the dinner table.

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