Monday, December 20, 2010

Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide-AAEP 2010 (The Translation*)

Equine welfare and the growing population of horses needing homes are quickly becoming some of the major challenges that veterinarians face on a daily basis, according to Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACT, who delivered the keynote speech, entitled "Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide," at the 56th Annual Pro-Horse-Slaughter American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, which was held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore. During his talk Lenz reviewed how he believes the issue of unwanted horses arose. He urged veterinarians to confront the issue and educate owners on how they can help combat it, and he offered some suggestions on how the industry as a whole might greatly reduce the number of unwanted horses in America. He then showed us some impressive 'doodles' of slaughterhouse layouts he sketched on his napkin during the flight to Baltimore.
According to Lenz, the problem is not one that's likely to be resolved quickly and easily: "The more you know about the unwanted horse issue, the more complicated the solutions becomes, and when those annoying Animal Rights people get involved, building  horse slaughterhouses can take a really long time." he noted.
First, Lenz covered some vocabulary: Unwanted horses, says Lenz, are horses that are no longer wanted by their current owners because they are old, injured, sick, unmanageable, or simply fail to meet the owners' expectations. He proudly noted that he coined this term, and while disingenuous, is now broadly used by all pro-slaughter advocates  "Welfare is defined as the physical and psychological state of the animal," Lenz said. He added that good welfare is generally described as meeting the horse's physiological, psychological, and safety needs, but that it is acceptable to waive those needs if people want to slaughter them.
Lenz believes the closing of American equine processing plants is one of several issues which led to the proliferation of unwanted horses and equine welfare situations. He added that he is obligated to promote horse slaughter for his friends in the livestock industry who view a ban on horse slaughter as a victory by Animal Rights extremists who want to put an end to animal agriculture and force everyone to become a vegan. (Editors note: previous comment 'off the record' - omit before publication)
Others include the economic recession which has decreased the market for horses and irresponsible ownership which has resulted in over breeding in some segments of the industry. He quickly added that the AQHA is, of course, exempt from any responsibility of creating "unwanted" horses.
"We don't eat horse meat in America, and I have no idea why because it tastes great! We had three plants that processed horses for human consumption (in other countries)," Lenz said, reflecting wistfully on the early days before the anti-slaughter movement in the United States. He said that a nationwide controversy began as the American public learned that these plants processed horsemeat for human consumption, and expressed wonder over why these plants didn't try harder to remain under the radar.
The issue is "complicated by a worldwide love affair with the horse," he explained, rolling his eyes. "Uninformed people with few to no ties to the equine industry care for horses and want to have a voice in how they are treated. However it's the people who support slaughter and understand its necessity that are the real horsemen and women, and the only ones with any knowledge or authority to decide this issue.  There are no horse owners that are opposed to the idea of slaughtering them for human consumption. None."
The controversy led to some federal government officials introducing legislation that would close all the equine slaughter plants in the United States. After being approached by a government agency to provide an opinion on the situation, several AAEP veterinariansincluding Lenztraveled to Texas to evaluate the welfare conditions at the processing plants.
He said that the team found that the horses awaiting processing were receiving good care, their welfare was not compromised at any time from arrival to time of slaughter, well, except for the actual slaughter part. Further, the veterinarians determined the horses were being euthanized in a humane manner under USDA veterinarian supervision.  Dr Lenz noted that while these veterinarians all graduated at the bottom of their class or had histories of disciplinary actions, there was no reason to believe they weren't perfectly qualified to work in slaughter plants. This same team later reported similar findings at a Mexican slaughterhouse, which earned essentially a 5-star rating by Lenz and his associates.
Lenz admitted that transportation of horses to the processing plants was an area of concern, however, as many of the horses were, and still are, transported in double decker trailers meant for cattle. He reported that there is currently legislation introduced in the House of Representatives (HR 305Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2009) to eliminate the use of double decker trailers to transport horses anywhere in the United States.
"The AAEP's position is not pro-slaughter, um, well, okay it is...BUT we support HR 305 (Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2009) and oppose HR 503 which would outlaw the processing of horses for human consumption because there are no provisions in the bill to provide for the care of unwanted horses, to designate an agency to enforce the law or funding to support them. Even though we are not actually concerned about the welfare of these horses, we can continue to get it stalled in congress by pretending that we do" Lenz said. Despite the AAEP's findings, the three equine processing plants closed due to state regulation in 2007. Lenz, in an attempt to salvage some credibility after his findings were roundly ignored, claimed the number of unwanted horses in the United States began to rise shortly thereafter
Years later, the negative effects of the closures are present more than ever, he insisted, despite USDA statistics that show numbers of American horses slaughtered (in Canada and Mexico) since the 2007 US closures have remained essentially the same. Lenz noted that the action polarized the horse industry; the anti-slaughter contingency refused to reason with the pro-slaughter groups and vice versa. In addition, the average price for a mid-to low-end horse has plummeted, due to the high numbers of them, he complained. However, Lenz does not believe there is any connection between over breeding and high numbers of horses; "it's just because we're not killing enough of them" he stated. 
He also said that there is a significant increase in abandoned and neglected horses because owners have few options if they are unable to sell, donate, or re-home their unwanted horse. Lenz denies the existence of low-end slaughter auctions since the 2007 US closures as an option for owners, explaining that any so-called American horses currently being slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, are clearly misidentified due to being given "counterfeit passports."
As a direct result of the abandonment and neglect, about 70% of the U.S.'s rescue, retirement, retraining facilities at or near capacity, he explained, citing the 2009 Unwanted Horses survey conducted by the Unwanted Horse Coalition, of which Lenz was the former director. Lenz pointed out that as many horses remain at these facilities for life as there are horses that are adopted out or purchased so it is easy to see that the rescue, retirement, retraining facilities will soon fill up, so slaughter is the only viable option.
Another issue that arose during the processing plant controversy and the expansion of the unwanted horse issue was a drastic increase in animal activist group activity. This, according to Lenz, has led to an increase in awareness among the general public which in turn makes illicit activities a lot harder to carry out.
"Our views on animal welfare are conditioned by our personal knowledge base and life experiences," Lenz explained. The general public without a background in horses has only the knowledge that they obtain from the activist groups; the activist viewpoint is usually fairly extremist, like expecting people to be responsible owners and have their animals humanely euthanized by a vet." He added, "we really hate them."
On the positive side, Lenz said, the increased number of unwanted horses and the concerns about equine welfare has stimulated positive action in the horse industry. Several states are now scrambling to build their very own horse slaughter plants. Rescue groups have opened their doors to thousands of horses that have fallen into the unwanted category, and AAEP veterinarians have vaccinated thousands more horses to help the animals remain healthy as they begin new chapters in their lives.
Even with the support from equine rescues and groups like the AAEP, finding a solution for the unwanted and neglected horse problem remains a challenge for equine practitioners and the industry in general.
"There is no definitive answer," Lenz said. "In a perfect world, all welfare solutions would be based on science, such as (the horses') health and biological function (as opposed to emotion) and we wouldn't have to waste time mollycoddling the public trying to convince them slaughter really is 'humane euthanasia'. In reality, though, science is often ignored if society believes something is wrong. This really makes it really a pain in the ass to try and get these slaughterhouses built." Lenz adds that he believes emotions often take over because society views animal welfare as a moral issue rather than a scientific issue, and they tend to be quick to blame when someone is killing caring for animals differently than they would.
"We must learn to accept that there is a societal aspect to horse care and use, and also that different perspectives are valid, er, well, except the anti-slaughter one" he continued.
Lenz cites one of the simplest solutions to the unwanted and neglected horse problem as responsible ownership. Of course, Lenz declined to detail just how horse slaughter and responsible ownership complement each other. But he suggested that although reopening the processing plants, with greater regulation over the transportation of the horses, might not be the ideal option for dealing with unwanted horses, it would aid greatly in controlling the number of unwanted horses in America until the industry can develop resources to eliminate the need. He's confident that states would gladly spend millions of dollars to build these plants for a temporary fix, only to shutter them when the 'problem' is solved.
Next, he suggests looking at the big picture for a solution. Overemphasis on one point, slaughter, is counterproductive, he adds. By dismantling a situation and analyzing each of the aspects of the animals' welfare, he explained, a full understanding of whether the situation is truly unethical is easier to come by. For example, solely looking at the feed a horse is offered or the time they are kept inor outside ofa stall on a daily basis does not give an accurate reading on whether a caretaker is infringing upon a horse's welfare. When questioned if the type of feed or a stable schedule is an appropriate analogy to slaughter, Lenz blushed, then added that "it could be if the horse didn't like the brand of oats."
Finally, he suggests that the horse world come together and work for the ultimate goal: to stop horse neglect and control the unwanted horse population in America by ignoring the uninformed and uneducated extremists who are preventing the construction of slaughterhouses.  That way, folks like the AQHA can continue their current breeding programs unhindered by the economic laws of supply and demand.
"We as veterinarians have to take a firm position to endorse and encourage the slaughter of America's horses for human consumption.  We are obligated as real horsemen and women to support this practice, since we have the facts on our side. The overwrought, hand-wringing, 'emotional' horse enthusiasts who are opposed to slaughter clearly lack any horsemanship skills and are out of touch with reality" he concluded.

*To read the original non-translated version go here: Horse Welfare Wars: When Emotion and Fact Collide (AAEP 2010)

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