Stopping horse slaughter
By Rebecca Carr
Photographs by Josh Norris
Cherokee was standing in the farthest corner of a grass-barren pen, knee-deep in mud when Heather Freeman first saw him. “You don’t want him,” the owner of the horse pen said. “He’s crippled and can only walk on three legs. That horse is marked for slaughter.”
Despite Cherokee’s mangy coat with ribs poking out his sides, despite blazing fear in his eyes, Freeman could see a glimmer of what he once was — a regal Western pleasure horse and successful barrel racing competitor before he blew his hind tendon in two places. “My first reaction was, ‘That is the most beautiful horse. How can he be here?’ ” Freeman said. “Then I saw him limping and knew that we had to do whatever we could to save him.”
Freeman whipped out her cell and called fellow equestrian Cynthia Boyle for help. “How much cash can you get and how fast?” she asked. “I’ve got a horse that can only stand on three legs, but he’s beautiful, and we have to save him.”
The two women purchased Cherokee for $600, preventing him from being loaded on a crowded trailer to be slaughtered in Mexico for his meat and hide.
Cherokee is now back at a healthy weight after nine months of intensive care and feeding. He can now not only walk on all four legs but is expected to fully recover and be ridden again this spring.
Cherokee unwittingly spawned an alliance of mostly women from across the Carolinas who have started to rescue horses from slaughter, one horse at a time. Recently formed as a nonprofit organization, Helping Equines Retain Dignity (HERD) has saved 76 horses and a snow-white donkey named Frosty over the past nine months from kill pens and auctions like the one where Freeman found Cherokee.
HERD raises money to purchase all kinds of horses — thoroughbreds, quarter horses, Tennessee Walkers, Appaloosas — from kill pens and auctions. The group keeps them in barns and pastures donated by volunteers until they can find a permanent home.
“It is incredibly gratifying to be able to save these horses from a brutal death across the border,” Boyle said. “This is a messy underbelly of the horse community. We can’t save all of them, but we will do what we can to save those that we can, one at a time.”
How did a prize-winning horse like Cherokee end up in a kill pen? Rather than pay expensive veterinarian bills to mend Cherokee’s tendon, his owner sold the horse to Carolina Feedlots at a local livestock auction for a fraction of what he was once worth. Before Freeman and Boyle’s intervention, Cherokee was destined to join some 30 horses on a trailer to Presidio, Texas, where he would have been sold to a company that slaughters horses in Mexico.
Congress banned horse slaughter in the United States in 2007, but that has not deterred the horse-slaughter industry from moving their business to Mexico and Canada, where horse slaughter is allowed. Last year, more than 150,000 horses were exported across the border to Mexico and Canada compared to the 36,000 horses that were slaughtered there before the ban in 2006, according to the USDA statistics.
Advocates complain that there is virtually no inspection of the horses crossing the border since Congress barred the USDA in 2011 from spending funds to inspect horses before slaughter. Horses are often transported for long periods of time without access to food and water, according to animal advocacy groups.
“There is a huge demand for horse meat,” said Jane Blais, vice president of Safe Food, Safe Horses Coalition, a national advocacy group seeking passage of federal legislation to end horse slaughter. “Unfortunately, there are virtually no inspections of the horses being slaughtered to confirm whether the meat is safe for consumption.”
In Blais’s view, the problem is not just the inhumane and cruel way the horses are transported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. It is the lack of U.S. oversight to ensure that horse meat, containing medications and drugs banned in cows in other animals approved for human consumption, does not end up in the nation’s food supply.
The solution, Blais said, is legislation banning the transport of the horses to Canada and Mexico, not rescuing horses from kill pens.
Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan recently introduced legislation that would do exactly that. The proposed legislation has bipartisan support in the House from Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.
“The slaughter of horses for human consumption is a barbaric practice that must end,” said Buchanan, announcing support for legislation from a wide array of animal rights groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute.
Carolina Feedlots, the horse pen where Freeman and Boyle rescued Cherokee, has a regular supply of horses passing through. It is a horse’s last chance to be saved. Jason White turned over the business to his wife, Crystal, last summer to fight pending animal cruelty charges — charges that he denies. The Whites say they have been unfairly targeted for mistreating horses when they are merely trying to offer horses purchased at auction a second chance at finding a home.
Crystal White created a Facebook page to promote the horses she thinks have a chance of being saved. “I started this because there are so many good horses that the owners just can’t afford to keep anymore,” she said. About 20 horses per week are bought this way, she said. The rest, about 90 horses each week, are shipped to slaughter.
Carolina Feedlots charges from $250 to $1,000 for a horse, depending on its weight. This is a typical listing for a horse on the Carolina Feedlots page:
Lately, the Whites have faced strong opposition from equine lovers who portray them as trying to get rich by selling horses for profit. Crystal White denies this, saying it is expensive to resell the horses they buy at auction because they have to keep and feed them longer and pay for health certificates to sell them.
“People think we are just trying to pull on the heartstrings of people on Facebook, but there ain’t no difference between what we are doing here and what ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) does with them ads on TV for dogs and cats,” Jason White said.
For HERD, it is not an easy choice to decide which ones to save at pens and auctions.
A few months ago, Freeman saw a buckskin mare standing at a horse lot with what she thought were two foals. Upon further inspection, she realized they were several years older but had not developed due to malnutrition. Freeman knew that if they were put on the trailer heading to Mexico, they would never make it off.
Freeman called Boyle again. This time, they had to make the painful decision to buy the horses to euthanize them.
“It was a hard call,” Freeman said. “Their organs didn’t develop properly from starvation. They were riddled with worms. It was more humane to euthanize them than let them board a trailer to be starved further and trampled to death.”
For every tough choice like that, there is a story about the gratitude HERD volunteers feel directly from the horses they save. Maybe it is an early morning nuzzle on the back of their neck when they are picking their hooves. Maybe it is a look in their eye when they see them at feeding time.
“There is an unmistakable bond that grows,” said Stuart Evans, who led the effort to pay for the mare and her foals to be euthanized. Before joining HERD, she had rescued dogs and cats. “I had no idea the extent of this, the horror of it and that it was in our backyard. So many people were ignorant about the terrible trips to Mexico. By spreading the word, I think we can have a significant impact. We have to do what we can to stop this.”
Author’s note: Rebecca Carr’s family rescued two “kill pen” horses nine months ago.