Jockey Bill Shoemaker rode a lot of winners in his career (8,833 to be exact). And in 1986, at age 54, he became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby—aboard a long-shot horse named Ferdinand.
The following year, Ferdinand won Horse of the Year honors and, after career earnings of $3,777,978, was retired to stud. But in 2002, it was reported that the horse had died after being sold to a Japanese slaughterhouse.
Animal activists used Ferdinand’s death to spread word about the practice. Now horse slaughtering is back in the news as a result of new legislation affecting some less-famous equines—America’s wild horses.
The provision was slipped into a spending bill by Montana GOP Sen. Conrad Burns. The “Slaughter Bill,” as it’s been dubbed by wild horse advocates, lifts protections of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act, which prohibited wild horses from being sold for processing into commercial products. The Burns Amendment now tells the Bureau of Land Management to sell horses based on one of two criteria: The horse is 10 years of age or older; or it has been unsuccessfully offered for adoption on three occasions.
The new law also uses the term “without limitations,” which in context seems to suggest that BLM can’t restrict sales either as to methods of sales (such as auctions) or locations of sales (such as local sale yards). However, BLM spokesperson Tom Gorey in Washington said the language is not clear enough for him to say without equivocation exactly what it means.
Horse advocates fear the “without limitations” term will attract “killer buyers” to sale yards, where they could purchase horses and then resell them to slaughterhouses that pay $1 a pound or upwards of $700 or more per horse.
“They can make a pretty penny doing it,” says Conni Canaday, a board member with the Las Vegas-based National Wild Horse Association (NWHA). “The slaughter bill is only a quick fix to lower the horse population.”
Initially, at least, that concern is not coming to pass. Last week, the BLM announced the first sale under the new act—200 mares to a Wyoming-based company that has committed to caring for the animals. Ron Hawkins, ranch operations chief for the company, Wild Horses Wyoming LLC, said the sale is not part of a slaughter plan.
Gorey said whatever the intent of the new law, the agency is taking the initiative to seek out buyers that will provide long-term care for horses.
“We’re exercising our authoritiy to limit sales to groups that want to take care of the animals. … Our bill of sale includes signing a statement that the new owner plans to provide long-term care.”
Horsemeat is a delicacy mainly consumed in France, Belgium, Japan, Italy and Switzerland. Since 1980, more than 4 million American companion and wild horses have been slaughtered (mostly overseas) to meet demand for horsemeat, according to the Equine Protection Network.
In 2003, 35,000 horses were killed in two Texas slaughterhouses and thousands of others were exported to Canada, EPN contends.
Nevada is home to more than half of the nation’s wild-horse population, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new law has infuriated many people here. Wild-horse advocates are fighting to restore protections that would again make it illegal for individuals or companies to buy animals from the federal government with the intention of killing them for profit.
“America’s wild horses belong to all Americans. They are our heritage, and you are their voice,” Robin Lohnes, executive director of the American Horse Protective Association, told more than 150 people in Las Vegas on Feb. 22.
Lohnes and others urged those in attendance to support a bill by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., that would re-establish prohibitions on the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses.
There are an estimated 37,000 wild horses roaming free on rangelands in the Western United States. In Nevada, BLM officials are trying to reduce the state’s horse population from 19,000 to around 14,500.
Burns introduced the rider on behalf of ranchers, who say mustangs are ruining the range. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, which supports the measure, says it’s necessary to thin a horse population that competes with other livestock for food and water.
“They’ve done pretty well getting the numbers down,” Preston Wright, cattle association president, said of the BLM’s efforts.
But Wright admits that removing horses from the range and placing them in holding pens is no solution. And when asked about the possibility that these horses could end up at the slaughterhouse, Wright responded: “They could, but that doesn’t mean they will. If you put limitations on their sale, you get exactly what you have now. The problem is nobody wants some of these horses.”
Horse advocates argue that the BLM is not doing enough to solve issues of overpopulation and that its Adopt-a-Horse program is under-funded and ill-run. In 2001, the federal government funded a study to determine how to manage the wild horse situation. That produced a massive 300-plus-page report.
“It went to deaf ears,” said Canaday.
NWHA Vice President Laurie Howard agreed, saying ideas laid out in the plan were largely ignored.
“It was a fabulous study,” Howard said. “If the BLM had done just half of what was recommended in that report, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The Burns Amendment currently applies to 8,400 unadoptable horses in BLM holding pens across the nation. BLM officials have said the agency is working to find the horses safe homes and have contacted several Indian tribes asking if they could take some of the mustangs.