THE BLOG
04/04/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

What Do We Owe the Horse? Government Considering Slaughterhouse Proposal

Last week a video appeared on YouTube showing a man cursing animal rights activists, then leading a friendly, fit-looking horse out of a pen, and shooting it dead with a single pistol shot between its eyes. (The horse was so tame it quietly stepped toward the pistol, and dipped its head to receive a scratch, in the moment before the shot.)

Tim Sappington is employed by a meatpacking company that has proposed to start slaughtering horses in New Mexico, bringing the practice back to American soil. The video inflamed opponents to the slaughterhouse. Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat Company, said he received so many threatening phone calls that he hired a security company to protect himself and his business.

In New Mexico, no law prevents a man from killing his own horse if the act is carried out humanely. Local officials declared that Sappington did kill humanely. However it's hard to imagine that anyone who saw the video, felt anything but anger at the man and sorrow for the horse. In 21st-century America, at least, killing a horse for meat, or to prove it can be done "humanely," breaks a compact that has grown stronger even as the horse has disappeared from most of our lives.

Check the news on any given day there's a good chance you'll see something about a horse. Last summer it was Ann Romney's dressage champion Rafalca, which Steven Colbert playfully mocked for its performance in Olympic "horse prancing." After Rafalca came a runaway carriage horse in Manhattan. More recently a horsemeat scandal swallowed-up the Swedish meatball business at all the in-store eateries operated by IKEA.

Beyond the news, horses show up regularly in our art. After a solid Broadway run and a Tony award for best play, War Horse is selling-out a national tour. The portrait show dubbed "most beautiful" of the season by The New York Times is Charlotte Dumas's exhibit of photos Army horses at Arlington National Cemetery. In March artist Nick Cave thrilled commuters with performances of dancers on horse costumes at Grand Central Station.

Cave and Dumas are direct descendants of Paleolithic artists who painted images of dashing horses inside caves in France and scraped the image of one out of topsoil in Oxfordshire. Ancients considered the horse an important subject because it was so much a part of daily life. No animal has served us more thoroughly -- as athlete, transport, tool, and warrior - or more reliably. All this service was rendered thanks to human intervention. We made the horse a partner above all others in the animal world. We also made it dependent on us for its well-being.

The industrial revolution began, for most of us, the end of contact with horses. But distant as we may be from everyday interaction with them, the horse still evokes deep emotions that are more wide-ranging and visceral than what we feel in response to any other animal. Dogs may move us to fear, affection, or admiration. In rare moments certain breeds will even act heroically on our behalf. But we do not need a special moment to be moved by the horse. Even people who fear them marvel at the sight of such a large and powerful creature acting in such close relationship with relatively puny human beings.

For millennia, people have anthropomorphized the horse and it's now almost impossible for us to avoid reading some feeling into a snort, a twitch, or the blink of an eye. Current research supports at least some of our interpretations. From Iain Douglas-Hamilton's study of grieving elephants to The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff, the argument for the idea that other species experience deep feelings gets stronger every day. Those of us who have experienced the varied "personalities" of animals know this research will eventually lead to a general agreement that many species have feelings similar to ours. From this realization it is a short step to profound questions about our duty to the animals we have domesticated.

The human response to the horse suggests that as he was evolving in relationship to us, we were adapting to him. Survival of the fittest might well have included survival of those humans who could work with the horse. Human beings who excelled at the care and training of horses enjoyed obvious advantages and were more likely to thrive and, consequently, love the horse.

If we have evolved to bond with the horse on an emotional level, then our feelings explain this animal's continuing presence on our streets, in the pages of the newspapers, and in our art. This relationship also explains why one of the few recent bipartisan initiatives in Congress is a proposed ban on both horse slaughter and the export of American horses to countries where they may be killed for meat. In the House, the bill was sponsored by Republican Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania and Democrat Jan Schakowsky. In the Senate it was proposed by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Mary Landrieu, who noted "there's no humane way to slaughter a horse."

Considering their innate wariness and sharp senses, there may not be a humane way to slaughter horses, which is why the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Animal Welfare Institute and the American Humane Society support the proposed bans. Polls show a consistent majority of Americans also oppose horse slaughter. Local community opposition led to the closing of the last three horse slaughterhouses in the country in 2007. However in recent months Valley Meat's effort to resume the practice in the United States has brought the prospect of horse slaughter into the public area.

Valley Meat's owners and workers like Tim Sappington are backed by those horse owners who views meat sales an economic boon. Also, a number of breeders, trainers, and riders consider old, sick, injured, and unwanted horses and say that a slaughterhouse operated humanely is a good, practical option. For support they turn to the famous animal science professor Temple Grandin who says "using animals for food or agriculture or pets is acceptable," and she has developed rules for humane horse slaughterhouses. This is the type of facility -- quiet, efficient, painless -- the meat industry presents as it seeks to resume horse meat production.

The "pro" side of the slaughter argument also raises the value of horse protein and other products of rendering that could benefit humanity. This point of view is often presented as a firmer, but kinder perspective and a practical alternative that reduces the abuse and neglect of unwanted animals.

Unwanted horses are sometimes abused and neglected and left to suffer and starve. At the height of the current economic crisis, reports of abandoned horses sent a wave of worry through the ranks of animal welfare advocates. However, this problem has abated and experience doesn't support the notion that slaughter prevents neglect. California saw no rise in neglect cases after it banned slaughter in 1998. This pattern was repeated when slaughter was stopped Illinois. Similarly, the facts do not support the notion that slaughter is mainly a way to dispose of horses that are no longer fit. When Americans still killed horses for meat, 92 percent of the animals were judged to be in good condition. Indeed, anyone who ever attended an auction where horses are sold for meat would have seen that the animals on offer were generally healthy, strong, and spirited. Some were so friendly they pestered auctioneers for affection.

The sight of a healthy, pretty horse seeming to flirt with an auctioneer who is selling him for meat captures the problem of horse slaughter in a single frame. Temple Grandin, who has applied herself to reforming the slaughter of cattle with some success, seems to straddle the line on the issue of using American horses as meat as she says, "It's a less bad option to slaughter them here," than in unregulated facilities abroad.

But is the "less bad" option the right one? Does it resolve the question: What do we owe the horse? In 2011, at a conference called The Summit of the Horse, Grandin suggested alternatives that amount to reduced breeding and a more concerted effort to help owners who can no longer meet their obligations to a hungry creature that can live for thirty years. Speaking of animals in general, Grandin has said, "Whether it is cattle or dogs we have got to give them a good life." When it comes to horses, we're struggling to decide what the end of a good life should be. Tim Sappington's homemade video didn't answer the question.