The new Steven Spielberg film “War Horse” will be released on Christmas Day. It follows a British farm boy’s horse who is sold to the army to go off to World War I. The story is about the nobility, beauty, strength and courage of an animal humans have sometimes loved and protected, but mostly used and abused over the course of history. Over 8 million horses died on the Western Front in that war. They were machine-gunned and gassed; some got tangled in barbed wire; others drowned in mud; many suffered fatal diseases or starved; and as a final insult, many of those who managed to survive the brutality of war were sold to slaughter for human consumption.
It is a sad irony that as this film about the brutality of war and nobility of the horse was first being teased in television and online trailers, President Obama was signing an agriculture spending bill, which had passed both houses of Congress, that effectively reopens horse slaughter plants in this country by providing renewed funding for on-site inspectors. The defunding of the Agriculture Department’s food safety inspections for horse slaughter had effectively shut the business down in this country in 2006, although 138,000 horses were exported for slaughter, mostly to Mexico and Canada.
This year Congress could have sealed the deal and banned the export of horses for slaughter, but following a recommendation from the General Accounting Office, the spending bill was passed and horse slaughter will resume.
The “humane” argument for horse slaughter in this country goes like this: People can’t afford to keep their horses and there is no market for them, so many are left to starve on run-out pastures or abandoned to fend for themselves and are hit by cars or trucks and crippled or killed. “Surplus” horses are exported for slaughter at substandard, cruel operations in Canada and Mexico. They are crammed in cattle trucks in which they can’t stand upright due to height restrictions, and many fall and are injured or killed during transport. So, the argument goes, “Let’s kill ’em here where we can do it right, and the poor horses won’t have to travel to Mexico to die.”
Setting aside the obvious point that no animal should be slaughtered for food, horses have long been held in high esteem by the American public. We don’t eat horse meat. Horses occupy a place in our national consciousness akin to that of the bald eagle, our national emblem. Like the eagle, the horse is a symbol of freedom, strength, grace and beauty. Apparently that doesn’t count for much when there is a buck to be made and business interests want the land that might otherwise serve as a home for many of the animals who will wind up on a dinner plate in Europe.
There are no easy answers here. Fulfilling our responsibilities to the animals we have domesticated and bred for our own purposes — whether horse, dog, cat, parrot or rabbit — requires some thoughtfulness and a little effort … not much in the grand scheme of things, but apparently more than our elected officials deem these magnificent animals are worth.
There is a war on horses, and as a result of this action, hundreds of thousands will die a humiliating and terrifying death every year amid the horror and stench of slaughter.
Just like in World War I.
To petition the Obama administration to ban horse slaughter, click here.
Co-Founder, Best Friends Animal Society