12/23/2011 11:42 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2012

Disclaimer: I Am Not in Favor of Horse Slaughter, But...

As many as 300,000 horses each year were once slaughtered in the United States, a practice that ended in 2007 when Congress repealed USDA funding for horse meat inspections and the last of America's slaughterhouses closed. But let's be clear about this: the practice of killing America's horses for human consumption never stopped, and the numbers of those slaughtered didn't decrease. We just stopped killing on our soil -- sort of. Instead of being slaughtered in Texas or Illinois, horses endured longer journeys in cramped trucks over the border to Mexico and Canada, and the little known slaughter of equines by illegal slaughter farms, most notably in parts of Florida, continued to flourish.

Yet today, horse lovers are in a tizzy about the lifting of a ban on funding horse meat inspections, fearing that slaughterhouses could be up and running as early as January. If advocates like the American Quarter Horse Association, The American Veterinary Medical Association, and United Horsemen, with 14,000 fans on their "Work Together in Order to Get the Horse Slaughterhouses Re-Opened" Facebook Causes page, get their way, this may well be the case. Big money/big politics are behind the push.

But tell me this: why, exactly, are we so freaked out? For sure, horse slaughter is awful, but from where I sit, it's symptomatic of far knottier problems. If our goal is to help animals, we need to get our arms around those problems, too. We need more laws, more regulation, more sanctuaries. More than any of this, we need more compassion. Consider the following:

1. Unless we ban both the slaughter of horses in the U.S. and their transport across our borders, a slaughter ban is pointless. If after reading this you still can't abide the idea of horse slaughter, then urge your senators and congressmen to sign the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 2966/S. 1176), currently in committee. Click here to find out how to contact your representatives.

2. We need to take a hard look at what will happen to those who don't get slaughtered. Those who say that "excess horses are absorbed by the industry" or "are humanely euthanized" when slaughterhouses close (and argue that there's no need for slaughterhouses) have their heads in the sand. Passing a slaughter prevention act might feel like a victory, but it certainly wouldn't prevent suffering. It would simply substitute a nightmarish but quick death, for prolonged suffering (and often a nightmarish and slow death) for thousands of animals.

Keep in mind that:

a. Terrible suffering is routinely ignored by those responsible for preventing it.
I could drive you right now to nine situations involving hundreds of animals whose terrible suffering at the hands of breeders/hoarders is being ignored by police and SPCAs. In our experience, SPCAs and police officers, though charged with the "protection of animals," primarily serve household pets. Whether it's lack of funding, lack of training, lack of interest, lack of judicial support/political will, the end result is the same. Law enforcement stands back while horses, cows, chickens and other farm animals starve to death. It's a gruesome truth that domestic slaughterhouses prevent death by starvation for lots of animals.

b. Overbreeding and hoarding aren't being addressed.
Catskill Animal Sanctuary has been involved with dozens of hoarders and breeders. We've gone to properties where dead animals were thrown into massive piles, properties where 50 or more starving horses had no hay in the dead of winter, properties where dying animals were hidden in the back, away from public view.

Some things that would help: a) laws that limit breeding b) laws that limit the number of animals that can live on a property c) laws that delineate the care that animals must be given (anti-cruelty laws for farm animals are vague) d) laws making hoarding and/or conditions associated with it a felony e) recognition of hoarding as a psychological disorder and appropriate treatment for it.

c. There are too few places for needy animals to go. Even if law enforcement did its job, there would be way too few placement options for needy animals. As one of the largest horse and farm animal sanctuaries in New York state, CAS has over 200 animals on our waiting list. Most are from people impacted by the economy. So add all the animals whose families can no longer afford to care for them to those whose neglect is being ignored by law enforcement. I'd call the problem epidemic. If we ban US slaughter altogether, more animals will die from starvation. If I'm in the wretched position of having to choose one death over another, what's my choice?

3. The paradigm is the problem. How will the problem of unwanted horses and what to do with them ever end as long as the model is humans on top, horses on the bottom? Very few "horse people" have horses in their lives simply to share a loving relationship. Instead, we are breeders, show horse people, racers, trainers, rodeo riders, dude ranch or petting zoo operators, carriage horse drivers, and the like. Even if horses are our friends, they are also, and primarily, commodities to buy and sell. Is the problem the few who want to profit from "excess" horses, or is it the paradigm that views horses as ours to do with what we choose, including "get rid of them" by whatever means will put some coins in our pockets when they're not valuable to us anymore? Do your own research: the numbers of thoroughbreds and quarter horses who wind up being slaughtered simply because they aren't fast or flashy enough to win races or ribbons is staggering.

4. The paradigm is THE problem. A few days after the inspections ban that opened the way for horse slaughter was lifted, Americans consumed over forty million turkeys in one day. Let me say it again: to make one species happy on Thanksgiving day, 40 million beautifully sensitive, gentle members of another species are grown in misery and killed while fully conscious. I might connect more deeply with horses than I do with cows or turkeys, but should that love justify such contradictory behavior? Don't terror, pain and suffering feel the same regardless of species?

The effort to keep horse slaughter plants out of the U.S. seem misguided at best, since it does nothing to minimize suffering and arguably increases it. I urge folks to work locally to strengthen both anti-cruelty statutes and their enforcement, to support good sanctuaries, or to open their own. I also urge you to consider what really needs attention -- speciesism: the unquestioned assumption of human superiority and the incalculable suffering of all other species because of it. If we are to survive, our circle of compassion must include all living beings -- not just humans, not just horses.