The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity. -George Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Seller Beware...the Adoption Process Can End in Slaughter


Think domestic horse slaughter is going away any time soon?

Here’s a troubling update:

Intelligent legislators like Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), John Sweeney (R-New York) and John Spratt (D-South Carolina) have strongly and consistently decried the horrendous practice of killing horses for the purpose of turning them into delicacies for European steak connoisseurs.

Last year, at their insistence, Congress overwhelmingly agreed to cut the funding for “ante-mortem” (before death) United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspections at the three existing foreign owned slaughterhouses in Texas and Illinois.

President Bush signed the measure into law. The law is the law: No inspections, no ability to export meat for human consumption. Sounds like a wonderful end to the story, right? Well, you won’t believe what happened next.

In November, the slaughterhouses actually petitioned the USDA to allow them to pay for the inspectors with their own money. What did the USDA do in light of this clear attempt to circumvent a congressional mandate? In February, the agency not only amended its regulations to permit the voluntary “Fee-for-Service Program” for ante-mortem inspectors requested by these equine butcher shops, but also stated that federal funds would continue to be used for “post-mortem” (after death) inspections, the clear intent of Congress notwithstanding. Bad enough? Just wait, for as Alice related in her descent into Wonderland, things get “curiouser and curiouser.”

The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2003. What did Congress do with this proposal?

Nothing, because the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) opposes the bill and kept it bottled up for two years. In fairness, Committee chairpersons prevent the advancement of all sorts of legislation, all the time. For lawmakers, inertia is an accepted virtue. What makes Goodlatte’s prevention of floor action on the Prevention Act so curious is this: At one time, the bill was co-sponsored by no fewer than 225 congressmen, and it takes only 218 votes for passage. At that time, passage of the bill would have been a slam-dunk, provided the bill was ever allowed out of the locker room.

The bill was amended in 2005. Instead of banning slaughter outright, the proposed legislation now prohibits transport of, and trafficking in, horses for the purpose of introduction in the human food chain. The modified measure was re-introduced as House Resolution 503. Finally, subcommittee hearings on the bill were conducted in late July of this year, with the full House scheduled to vote on the proposal after the summer recess. While Goodlatte’s Agriculture Committee reported the bill out of committee “unfavorably”, another committee discharged the bill without vote or recommendation. A perusal of some of the testimony before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee confirms that passage of H.R. 503 is far from a sure thing.

Both the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) continue to oppose the bill.

Dr. Doug Corey, vice president of the AAEP offered this surreal statement, “I would prefer to have these horses processed in the United States where there are regulations.”

Presumably, the horses will appreciate being slaughtered under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam. Another unbelievable comment came from Richard Koehler, an official at one of the processing plants. Koehler stated that his company takes great care to ensure that horses remain “calm” during their killing, explaining that, "If a horse is under strain, it will lead to inferior horse meat."

Luckily, the proponents of the bill benefited from the persuasive testimony of noted equine surgeon Patricia Hogan. Dr. Hogan who, along with husband Eddie Lohmeyer breed and campaign Standardbreds, offered her first person account of the horrors of equine slaughter and her professional opinion that horses in the processing line, unlike chickens or cows, possess the awareness that others are being slaughtered before their eyes, and that they are next.

The bottom line is that any major policy change in Washington occurs only after years of struggle, if the policy changes at all. The equine slaughter issue is no different. Horses are being slaughtered today; they will be slaughtered tomorrow. We shouldn’t hold our breath. Of course, if nobody sends their horses to slaughter, none get slaughtered. Sound simple enough? Assuredly, it’s not, and that’s where our collective awareness must kick in and save our horses from a sickening death.

Consider this scenario - Your old beloved broodmare has served you well. You don’t want to pay a board bill or keep her until she paces off this mortal coil, so you decide to either sell her for a nominal sum, or give her up to an “adoption” service. You would never even think of sending her to a meat processing plant. Here’s the question: How do you know she won’t eventually end up on the dinner menu at a five star Parisian restaurant? The answer is that you don’t, unless you take some proactive measures before transfer. Consider the following:


Just who is this kind person or entity that is willing to take an old horse off your hand and give it a good life? A slick business card or flowery website does not provide enough information to satiate all concerns. A widely reported story in 2004 involved a top owner on the New York Thoroughbred circuit buying back a claimed horse for $5,000 simply to place it in the hands of an adoption agency. The thoughtful owner identified a “riding academy” in Massachusetts, and placed the horse there with the assurance that the beloved retiree would provide trail rides to children. A week later, a rescue agency alerted the owner that the old claimer was destined for a Texas slaughterhouse, having failed to sell at an auction. The lesson learned is that the wolves often come in sheep’s clothing. Have you visited the facility that is willing to “adopt” your horse? Have you checked out all its references? How long have the other horses been there? Do they look well cared for? Your horse can’t send a postcard back home if things aren’t working out. You must stay on top of things.


If the group you entrusted with your animal can’t care for it any longer, what right do you possess to ask for it back? If you are sending the horse to a “placement” agency, what type of follow-up does the group perform once they find your old friend a new home? Do they conduct routine site checks at the adoptive homes? Does their adoption agreement mandate return of the horse if it is not being well cared for? Though you place your horse with a “reputable” group or person, it does little good if you, or they, do not monitor or cannot control the chain of custody once your horse leaves their hands.

Consider this scenario:

You give your aged trotter to trusted friends that own a horse farm in a neighboring state. Their teenage daughter rides the horse daily and loves him. You visit once or twice, are satisfied with what you see, and are content that you’ve done the right thing. The next September, the daughter enters a university 500 miles from home. By November, your friends realize that the horse serves no further purpose other than to eat and grow enormous. Thinking that you don’t want to take the animal back, your friends sell him for a small sum to a local Amish farmer. After a few weeks, the farmer realizes that the horse simply isn’t pulling its weight on the farm. He enters it in an auction sale frequented by killers. By the time your friends’ year-end holiday card arrives explaining the situation, the horse has already experienced the kill-pen. Though both you and your friends abhor equine slaughter, the horse is now horsemeat. That’s how easy slaughter can happen, despite the best intentions of considerate owners. The vigilance required to protect the well being of a previously owned horse does not end with your presumptively responsible transfer of the still very viable animal. While many healthy horses do get killed, an old, lame, “problem” horse is obviously more likely to have a one-way ticket on a cattle trailer than one that still maintains a degree of functionality. Once you give him up, your horse is certain to not get any younger. Whether he eventually dies of natural causes or from vivisection while possibly still conscious in a slaughterhouse depends upon whether any human cares for the horse’s welfare in its reclining years. If you care, your “out of sight” horse should never be “out of mind.”


While rescue and adoption are issues of concern for all breeds of horses, a special consideration arises with placement of Standardbred racehorses. Assume your veterinarian indicates that your sophomore pacer’s pulled suspensory ligament will eventually result in a torn ligament if you continued to subject the filly to a race-training regimen. The decision to pull the shoes and retire the girl was both altruistic and expensive on your part. Eventually, you sell the filly to someone who purportedly will re-train her for a less strenuous second career. You get a check; he gets the halter and executed registration papers. Soon, you realize that you sold the filly to an unscrupulous individual. No, he didn’t enter the horse in a kill sale; he entered her in a $5,000 claimer at the local harness track! Maybe this is not a fate worse than death, but it’s darn near close to death if she’s even slightly injured in the race. Remember, there are unspeakable places for injured fillies.

If you can sell a papered horse without papers, you avoid these types of problems. If you are going to sell a horse along with U.S.T.A. papers, there should be a strict and enforceable understanding regarding your desire that the horse never see a harness again or reproduces a registerable foal. If someone offers one price for your horse with papers, and another without, you have obviously just identified the wrong person to buy your horse.


Rescue and placement groups are not “dumping grounds.” If you want to put your horse up for adoption, a reputable group will solicit a contribution towards maintenance of a horse while it is in “foster care,” pending adoption. Any owner knows full well the enormous expense associated with maintaining a horse. Showing up with a lead shank and empty pockets is simply not responsible. You are asking a group with no steady source of funding to assure your horse’s health and safety for perhaps the next twenty years. Moreover, you are shifting your financial responsibility to them. Fortunately, most established adoption groups have qualified pursuant to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code as nonprofit organizations, thus qualifying donations of cash, items and sometimes horses for tax deductibility, within stringent guidelines. When contemplating placement, and certainly before anything is signed, a tax professional should be consulted.

For some, a kind and gentle euthanasia might be considered. Nobody is adopting a 26-year-old broodmare, and for exactly that reason, “donating” such an animal to a rescue group simply burdens the agency for years to come, as they must now allocate resources to care for a horse that you, and no one else for that matter, wants to maintain. There is no hypocrisy here. While one might argue that slaughter for steak burgers and euthanasia both result in death, the differences are in the purpose and mode employed. If you absolutely do not have the financial resources for care for an old or chronically sick or lame horse for the rest of their natural lives, consider all options. If you can find an equine adoption group to accept such a horse, also consider the financial burden you are shifting to a charity that no doubt struggles for every dollar, and make appropriate arrangements.


As with all issues involving rights and responsibilities, a written agreement is important, whether the placement is with a private individual or a group. Among the items to be addressed are:

a) Prohibiting the horse’s participation in racing.

b) Whether the horse may be used for breeding.

c) Whether the horse may be used for any business or commercial purpose (i.e., “trail riding only”).

d) If a placement agency, whether the group conducts regular spot checks of adoptive homes during the life of the horse.

e) Permitting the prior owner access to inspect the horse during reasonable horses.

f) That the adoptive owner agrees to keep the horse’s inoculations current, and otherwise provide reasonable vet care for the horse.

g) Establishing the right to unilaterally demand a horse’s return if it appears to be ill or poorly taken care of by the adoptive owners.

h) Establishing the right to be notified if the horse is to be sold or otherwise transferred, and granting the placement agency or prior owner a “right of first refusal” (meaning the first right to meet the conditions of transfer and buy back the horse).

i) Establishing the right to be informed if the horse requires euthanization. If circumstances required immediate euthanization, then the right to be notified immediately after the procedure takes place.

Selling a horse or giving it up for adoption because you can no longer maintain it is not an irresponsible act. Blindly handing over your horse to somebody you don’t know or haven’t checked, without any form of writing articulating post-transfer conditions, is irresponsible, and potentially deadly. The killers are everywhere, and Congress may not do much to stop them. Know what? I don’t need an Act of Congress to protect my horse from slaughter. Neither do you.

Chris E. Wittstruck, an attorney and Standardbred owner, is the founder and coordinator of the Racehorse Ownership Institute at Hofstra University, New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.

Courtesy Of Chris E. Wittstruck, Esq. and the United States Trotting Association


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