MOUNTAINVIEWS: HORSE-EATING FOREIGNERS FINDING FRIENDS IN UNITED STATES CONGRESS

By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- For a while, this newspaperwas one of the lonely few covering the fervid national debate over horses and whetherthey are just livestock and food for foreigners, or something more respectedand treasured in American culture. Now, reporters and columnists all over thecountry are weighing in on the issue, and Congress took up the matter lastweek.

As usual, Congressscrewed it up beyond belief.

Here's an update. ThreeBelgian-owned horse-killing plants -- two in Texas and one in Illinois --slaughter about 95,000 American horses a year, mostly for export to Japan andseveral European countries, where the flesh is considered a delicacy and goesat retail for about $15 to $23 a pound.

The horses destined forforeign dinner plates often sell at auction in this country for as little as 40cents a pound, some of which trickles down to naive farmers, ranchers and petowners who are frequently told their beloved animal is going to some greenretirement pasture instead of into a catchment system that ends up in a killingplant. More often, the horse owner can't afford to feed the old horse anymore,or can't handle the zooming veterinary bills, or buys into the spuriousdescriptions of the killing process as humane, and sends the horse off with asoothed conscience and thoughts of painless euthanasia. More on thatgullibility and rationalization in a bit.

When you get that kindof a profit spread described above, you know someone is going to fight to keepthe system going -- and the three foreign-owned slaughterhouses have and are.Collectively, they sold about $60 million worth of horsemeat for foreignconsumption last year.

The House and Senateare scheduled to vote soon on a bill that would make such slaughter permanentlyillegal -- a vote which probably will occur during the first week of Septemberwhen members of Congress return from their August recess vacations.

The bill enjoysbipartisan support in both chambers, has 201 co-sponsors in the House and ismirrored by a companion bill in the Senate, primarily sponsored by Republicansenator John Ensign of Nevada, a veterinarian himself.

The House version ofthe American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act progressed nicely through the HouseEnergy and Commerce Committee last week, but then was hijacked by the chairmanof the House Agriculture Committee, Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte -- who isvigorously opposed to the slaughter ban.

Goodlatte's panelreported the bill out to the House floor -- a seeming victory for its backers-- but did what congressional committees often do when they want to confuse thepublic. The panel loaded up the proposal with "poison pill" amendments,killer changes in obtuse language that make a hash of the original intent andusually doom the legislation to defeat or terminal delays.

Now, the House RulesCommittee must decide if members get to vote on the original bill, consider asubstitute bill without the killer amendments, amend the bill on the floor, ordecide on the Goodlatte version with all its clever baggage. The House bill'sauthors -- Republican representatives John Sweeney of New York and Ed Whitfieldof Kentucky -- contend they have been promised a straight up-or-down floor voteon the original bill without amendments. The promise maker is the one whodecides: House Majority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. We shallsee.

The House Ag amendmentsmake that tampered-with version generally unpalatable to original backers. Onewould require the Department of Agriculture (which routinely thumbs its nose atcongressional intent on this issue) to pay America's horse owners for the costof euthanizing their unwanted animals if slaughter is deemed illegal. This, itis estimated, would cost the American taxpayer about $160 million a year andprompt howls of fiscal outrage.

Another is apremeditated thumb in the eye of the sponsors. Under a so-called "pilotprogram," it would limit the slaughter ban to two states -- New York andKentucky, where Sweeney and Whitfield are from. Sweeney's district includesSaratoga horse country, where the venerable and famous upstate thoroughbredracing meet is taking place as you read this.

Goodlatte even twistedthe knife a bit in commenting about the two-state amendment.

"If some peoplethink the bill does (have merit)," he said after the hearing, "theycan try it out in two states of two proponents of the legislation."

There are currently nohorse slaughter plants in New York or Kentucky. So the amendment is meaninglessexcept for Goodlatte's intended message: Don't screw with me.

Another amendment would"grandfather" the three existing plants as legal -- exempting themfrom shutting down no matter what law was passed -- effectively obliteratingthe primary intent of the legislation in the first place. Yet another venomouschange in the original bill would exempt from the slaughter ban horses thatwould be killed for "charitable of humanitarian relief purposes."

That one is a beauty,and testimony to the ingenuity of nameless congressional committee staffers whodraft legislation for a living. All the Belgian owners of the killing factorieswould have to do is throw a few bucks a year to United Way or some Americanhumane society and claim the money came in part from all the horses slaughteredannually, no matter how minutely fractional. Bingo, they're exempt from thekilling ban.

The agriculture panelhearing itself was stacked from the get-go. All witnesses in front of the HouseAg panel opposed the bill. Goodlatte blithely told the press he received norequests to testify from backers of the legislation. Proponents point out it isHouse tradition and practice that witnesses from both sides of an issue beinvited to testify, and no proponents were.

One of those who didtestify at the House Ag hearing was prominent veterinarian Bonnie Beaver,former president of the powerful American Veterinary Medical Association andnow a professor in Texas A & M University's College of Medicine. She isopposed to the slaughter ban. She claims it "does not address the disposalof more than 90,000 horse carcasses (a year) if horse slaughter isbanned."

She said backers aremaking this into an "emotional" issue instead of offering solutionsto "the problems that would be created."

In the furtherance ofthe concept of full disclosure, it should be noted that the two Texas plants --Beltex and Dallas Crown -- pay $5 per slaughtered horse to two recipientorganizations: $3 to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and$2 to the Texas A & M Cooperative Extension for its stolen horse preventionand education program. That's worth about $135,000 a year to Texas A & Malone. Excuse me for going hmmnnnn.

Emotions, indeed.

There was a bit of goodnews for the bill's proponents. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens -- whoroutinely gives impressive sums to conservative Republican candidates --appeared at the Energy and Commerce panel to support the slaughter ban and todeclare the killing, which he termed America's "dirty little secret,"is also harmful because it "cuts against our moral and culturalfiber."

"This is a blackeye on our state and nation that demands action," said Pickens, who neatlyblew up the argument that most of the killed horses are old, lame, diseased andstarving anyway. The USDA, noted Pickens, has described most (90-plus percent)of the horses who are butchered in the three plants as in "good toexcellent condition."

"This is all aboutmaking money," continued the blunt-talking Pickens. "The kill plantsare here in the United States to make money for people in Europe. They shouldslaughter their own horses, not American horses."

Some of the testifierslast week were downright arrogant. Douglas Corey, the incoming president of theAmerican Association of Equine Practitioners who argued for free trade andproperty rights, was dismissive of numerous polls that show about 90 percent ofAmericans oppose horse slaughter.

"The general publicdoes not know equine," he sniffed.

Well, apparentlyCongress doesn't "know equine" either. When an amendment to ban horseslaughter for one fiscal year by defunding specific health inspectors came up fora vote, it passed in the House 269-158 and in the Senate 69-28. The conniversin the U.S. Department of Agriculture got around that by letting the foreignhorse killers pay for their own meat inspections, but that doesn't change thenumbers.

Another argument thatproponents of the trio of abattoirs use is continuance of employment. Think ofthe hundreds of jobs that will be lost, they wail.

Where were they whenour federal leaders shipped all those steelworker jobs in Buffalo andPittsburgh to Japan in the name of globalization and free trade? Where werethey when New England and Carolina textile jobs went to slave-labor sweatshopsabroad so some multi-national firms could get rich? Where were they when theair conditioner plants bailed to foreign climes in the name of net profit?Where are they when they let oppressed foreign workers making pennies an hourproduce apparel that can be labeled "Made in USA" after a fewremaining stitches are added back in this country? Get real. Don't insult us.

Another argumentroutinely repeated by members of the agriculture panel is the"humane" process used in killing the horses. I will not describe ithere, for reasons of space and taste -- but most of you are reading this on acomputer, or at least know how to use the Internet. Telling pictures arereadily available. Go to your screens and access one of the following web sitesto view what I'm talking about: www.savethehorses.com,or www.saplonline.org, or www.usesr.org, or www.kaufmanzoning.net.

Then tell me you'd liketo see your aging dog or cat put down that way.

The last thing I'llmention is the deliberate smokescreen that horse slaughter advocates areblowing around -- vegetarianism. House Ag chairman Goodlatte stated it outrightlast week: "This bill is part of a larger agenda for the animal rightsactivists, an agenda against all of agriculture."

He and other opponentsapparently believe passage would lead to subsequent bans on slaughter of pigs,cows, chickens and other yummy barnyard creatures.

This odd and misleadingview is also held locally. Some guy from Grand Island tore me apart in a letterto the editor three weeks ago, claiming my opposition to horse slaughter stemsfrom a vegetarian agenda I must hold and sarcastically advising that I shouldinstead express agony for plant souls each time I chomp down on a bean, orkernel of corn, or carrot stick. Let me clear something up. I am not avegetarian.

I eat pork. I eatchicken. I eat goose. I eat duck. I eat deer. I eat fish. I eat cute littlerabbits. I eat cute little lambs. I eat cow.

I don't eat horse.


JohnHanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a formereditor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning nationalcorrespondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recentlynamed by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can becontacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter

www.niagarafallsreporter.com

August 1 2006