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The Equine Slaughter Debate

On June 16, 2007, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari (meaning "refused to review", thereby ending the appeals process for the petitioner) in the case of Cavel International, Inc. v. Lisa Madigan, a Seventh Circuit Federal Court of Appeals case found at 500 F.3d 551 (2007). In Cavel International, Inc., the Illinois legislature acted by passing a law to successfully shut down the last equine slaughter house in the nation, which action the slaughter house protested in court, but which was upheld by Illinois courts, up to and including the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Many horse groups and prominent individuals (Bo Derek, actress, was acknowledged in the Governor's signing statement, e.g.) got involved on both sides of the issue, a factor which may have assisted in the denial of the review. By refusing to look at the issue, the Supreme Court dodged a problem which looms larger and larger for horse owners and industry participants. Because the horse industry itself is divided on the slaughter issue, courts may in some respects be pardoned for this failure to act. The problem will continue to grow until the overall horse industry gains its voice, whether "fer" or "agin", as the case may be.

As noted in the Seventh Circuit opinion, horse meat, until recently, was an accepted part of the American diet (e.g. the Harvard Faculty Club served horse meat steaks until the 1970's.) No longer. Now, only the international market uses horse meat for human consumption. In the United States, horse meat that was intended for human consumption or zoo animal consumption was processed in slaughter houses, subject to federal regulation on methods of killing, and treatment of the horses before death. Horse meat intended for pet food use, on the other hand, is sent to rendering plants that produce meat from already dead horses.

Cavel International, Inc., the firm which owns the Illinois slaughter house, is Belgian. All of the slaughter house's human consumption output was directed to sources outside the United States. In noting this fact, the Seventh Circuit Court found that there was no locally imposed burden on interstate commerce, because no local firms were involved in slaughter, and even if they wished to be, they could not because of the law. As a result, Cavel International, Inc. was left with the difficult argument to make before the Court that the Illinois law served "no rational purpose".

Judge Richard Posner found a rational purpose for the law, stating that the option of selling a horse to a slaughter house was financially more advantageous to an owner, than paying to have the horse sent to a rendering plant, and that therefore, Cavel International Inc. made a profit by buying some 40,000 to 60,000 horses per year which otherwise would not have been slaughtered absent Cavel's presence. Posner found that "states have a legitimate interest in prolonging the lives of animals that their populations happen to like". The Court went on to note that the state of Illinois could do more than it did to promote horse welfare. For example, it "could establish old-age pastures, so that they would never have to be killed (except by a stray cougar) or provide them with free veterinary care". Nevertheless, the Court said that states could advance one step at a time on a road to humane treatment towards our fellow creatures.

In filing a "friends of the court" brief asking for Supreme Court review, many national horse organizations weighed in to support Cavel's right to slaughter horses. These organizations include the American Quarter Horse Association, The American Association of Equine Practitioners, the Palomino Horse Breeders of America, The Pinto Horse Association of America, The American Paint Horse Association, and the Horseman's Council of Illinois. Their position, found in their brief filed with the court, may be more justly phrased that though these groups did not support the slaughter of horses per se, that the status quo should be supported until a viable alternative for horse owners became available, and that shutting down the plant left many horses worse off, rather than better off, as a result. Therefore, these organizations argued, the judge's assumption that shutting the plant down served a rational purpose, was an assumption not borne out by the evidence.

The organizations (the amici) pointed to the swollen populations of horse shelters, the more frequent reports of increasing numbers of abandoned or neglected horses, and the increased resort of transportation of horses to unregulated slaughter houses in Mexico and Canada since the plant was closed, as the evidence proving their point. The amici argued that it was not rational to accept as a valid reason an "interest" in prolonging horses' lives, without regard for how those longer lives would be lived.

The amici then went into a comparison of the economics of horse donation and shelter costs, death, and disposal. They discussed the average charge to a shelter for keeping a horse is $2,340 per year depending on location and that the shelters themselves are finding it harder to meet their own increasing costs. This has given rise to the practice of requiring horse owners who want to "donate" a horse to a shelter, to fund part of this care, which may be considered ironic since presumably the owner would not donate if they could afford even a part of this cost. They also commented on the cost of chemical euthanasia running from $60 to $100 for the procedure itself, but then requiring hundreds and even thousands of dollars for disposal of the body.

The amici discussed the fact that the foreign slaughter houses in Mexico and Canada are unregulated, that horses sent there not only endure horrible conditions on the trip, but then once there, can be killed with gruesome and offensive methods as opposed to more humane methods that could be mandated for regulated U.S. plants. Finally, the amici pointed out that veterinary medical research had been hampered by the shut down in domestic slaughter houses.

No one wants horses to be slaughtered. Yet, no financially viable alternative to slaughter exists causing the shipment and unregulated slaughter of horses outside the country. Until the horse industry finds its voice AND its wallet on this issue, the status will continue to remain quo, to the detriment of American horses. Et tu?

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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