CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — The American mare swung her head frantically when the door shut to the kill box, trapping her inside. A worker jabbed her in the back with a small knife — seven, eight, nine times. Eyes wild, she lowered her head and raised it as the blade punctured her body around the withers, again and again.
At the 10th jab, she fell to the floor of this Mexican slaughterhouse, bloodied and paralyzed, but not yet dead.
She would lay there a good two minutes before being hoisted from a chained rear leg so her throat could be slit and she could bleed to death.
The primitive procedure at the Ciudad Juárez plant now is the fate of thousands of exported U.S. horses since court rulings closed horse slaughter operations in the United States.
The roan mare was one of nearly 30,000 American horses shipped to Mexican processing plants so far this year, a 369 percent increase from the number recorded this time last year.
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By the time she and her unlucky peers were led into this city-owned plant, they typically had traveled in packed trucks 700 miles or more, say the American traders who ship them there.
The lucky ones arrive dead. Many of the others come in "fractured, battered and bruised," said José Cuellar, the plant's veterinarian.
No one disputes that slaughter-bound horses have it far worse today than before U.S. courts, upholding state bans, ended horse slaughter at two plants in Texas earlier this year and at the nation's single remaining one in Illinois on Sept. 21.
Horses wait for slaughter.
Animal welfare advocates who lobbied to end horse slaughter in the United States gambled that Congress would pass legislation by next year barring horses from being exported for slaughter and prohibiting their slaughter in states that don't already ban it.
But the fate of the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act is uncertain.
"I think (the odds of the ban passing are) 50-50 this session," said U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., a leading opponent of horse slaughter who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. HR 503 passed the House last year but a companion bill died in the Senate. The legislation has been reintroduced this year.
John Holland, a horse slaughter opponent from Virginia, likens the fight to warfare: attack the industry from all sides and deprive it of profits, while pressing Congress for a federal law banning horse exports.
"The federal ban is the name of the game, and everybody in the anti-slaughter community knows it," he said.
More than 100,000 U.S. horses were slaughtered last year for overseas dinner plates, according to government figures. There have been 15,000 fewer American horses slaughtered this year compared to the same period last year, even counting the jump in the number being shipped to Mexico and Canada, Holland said.
"It made it better for (the) horses who are not being slaughtered, but it made it worse for those who are. No doubt about it," Holland said. "If you told me we'd never get the federal ban, would I have worked hard to get the plants shut while horses are exported? No."
The issue of horse slaughter has emerged as one of the most contentious U.S. debates regarding animals.
Lower in fat than beef and sweeter, too, horsemeat is considered a delicacy in places like France, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Russia.
Laurent Mailhet, a third-generation butcher in Lunel, France, insists horsemeat is tastier than beef, and for good reason.
"The horse is an animal that selects its food," avoiding certain grasses. Cattle, he said, are less discriminating.
In Mexico, horsemeat is perceived as inferior to beef, selling for about 30 percent less — and it's sometimes sold as beef to unsuspecting customers.
It never gained much of a U.S. following, though it's legal in states other than Texas, California, Oklahoma and Illinois. The Harvard Faculty Club reportedly offered horse steaks for decades but removed them from its menu in the late 1970s.
Opponents argue that domestic horses shouldn't be used to satisfy foreign palates. Horses played a special role in U.S. history, they say, helping conquer the West, providing the sinews of early commerce and serving as majestic friends — but not food animals.
"Horses have helped us settle this country, they've been our primary means of transportation, they've served us in battle and carried our mail, entertained us and been our companions. They've been so much to us, but the one thing they haven't been is dinner," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
Though millions of cats and dogs wind up euthanized each year, Markarian notes, "the answer has never been to send them for slaughter to countries where they would be considered food animals."
Proponents of horse slaughter say they, too, have the horses' best interests at heart. Banning it, they say, will result each year in the abandonment of tens of thousands of unwanted horses.
The salvage market
To avoid a trip to the slaughterhouse, a horse needs to carry itself well at auction. Paraded into the sale yard before a crowd, horses have about a minute to demonstrate that they're broken in, tame, physically fit and not too old. Traders known as "killer buyers" flock to auction houses such as the monthly horse sale in Stephenville, scooping up horses and ponies that are crippled, blind, don't ride well or are just plain unwanted. They stand inside the sale yard, surveying each animal, ready to bid as little as $60 for a so-called "salvage market" horse.
Mike McBarron is one of about a dozen killer buyers in Texas who supply horse slaughterhouses.
Fifteen of the 21 horses he snapped up in Stephenville the first Friday of September failed to convince him they had some quality more valuable than the 20 to 30 cents a pound they would command at slaughter.
"Every one of them is either cripple or crazy or don't ride at all," McBarron said, surveying his herd.
McBarron, 36, has been trading horses since he dropped out of the ninth grade and makes more money selling saddle horses not bound for slaughter. He knows he has no celebrities rooting for him, no Bo Dereks or Willie Nelsons writing to Congress on his behalf. (Both are in the opposing camp).
He knows many are contemptuous of traders who can flip a horse without giving it much more than a glance, who assess sentient creatures in dollars and cents.
But McBarron insists he's providing a kind of service, saving unwanted horses from abandonment by saving owners the expense of euthanizing them.
"I promise you, if there was anybody in America other than the packinghouses that wanted to buy 'em, I'd gladly sell 'em," he said.
The ban on horse slaughter in Texas hit killer buyers hard. McBarron, who lives in Kaufman, site of one of the plants, said it costs him about $100 to send a horse to Mexico, leaving his profit at $20 to $50 per horse.
Animal welfare advocates reject the argument that owners would abandon horses if they no longer could sell them for slaughter. They say killer buyers often outbid others for horses that otherwise might end up on someone's ranch.
"They create a market," said Holland, the slaughter opponent from Virginia.
Markarian said horse slaughter peaked in the 1980s, when as many as 350,000 horses were killed annually for their meat. The gradual closure of plants didn't lead to thousands of horses running wild or dying in their pastures, he said.
Steven Long can't fathom selling a horse for slaughter. Last year, his ailing 20-year-old Dillon told him in subtle ways it was time, so he and his wife paid $250 to put him down.
"The last thing he saw in life was my face looking into his eyes. I stroked his face," he said.
A dignified death was the least they could do for a loyal riding buddy, said the Houston resident, who edits a magazine called Texas Horse Talk. He's appalled others don't treat their animals with the same respect.
"That's darn sure pretty cold for someone to send their horse to slaughter so they can profit or recover their costs," he said.
The killing floor
Under a metal roof in Stephenville, in the warm air long after midnight, time was running out for McBarron's newly purchased herd. At 10 a.m., they would be put in a cattle truck and shipped 565 miles to El Paso. Transferred to another truck for a short haul across the border, they would then be put on a Mexican truck — and become Mexican horses subject to Mexico's regulations, said one U.S. Department of Agriculture official.
Perhaps they'd stay in Juárez, or maybe they'd be shipped to one of the two large plants in Zacatecas, 700 or so miles to the south.
About a quarter of the nearly 400 horses auctioned at Stephenville this month were sold for slaughter. Some might have won a few ribbons and been somebody's pet. Some may have spent their lives tied to a tree.
But when the trucks arrived, they would all share the same fate.
Not all horses screech while being stabbed in the back. But horses tend to stir, making the task of killing them a challenge.
The Juárez plant has a couple of captive bolt guns, but they're inoperable about half the time — and when they work, poor training can make their use almost as chaotic as the knives, said Cuellar, the plant's vet.
The knife wielders have to be nimble, with good aim, to paralyze a horse with a single blow to the spinal cord. The man on duty one recent day had atrocious aim, with horses enduring as many as 13 jabs to the back before collapsing.
The brutality left the plant's director, Luis Terrazas Muñoz, apologetic. But he can't shut the plant down just because the guns aren't working, he said.
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has researched ways to reduce stress on slaughter animals and has designed meat plant facilities that process about half all U.S. cattle. She called the "puntilla" technique employed in Juárez and at plants throughout Mexico "horrific beyond belief."
Repeated jabs to the spinal cord, she said, would not kill the horse, at least not right away. A clean jab to the spinal cord, which is difficult to do, dulls sensation in the body but not the head. "The horse would likely experience being hoisted up and it's probably going to experience being bled. It would likely experience 30 seconds to a minute of absolute terror," Grandin said.
Horses were slaughtered at U.S. plants with a bullet to the forehead from captive bolt guns. Grandin maintains that death came quickly and painlessly. Some animal welfare advocates disagree, however, and say a horses' quick movements and narrow forehead left some needing to be shot multiple times before they went down.
The Juárez plant also processes cattle, but on different days per Mexican law. The puntilla method is used on both animals in older slaughterhouses throughout Mexico, Terrazas said.
Not all exported horses endure such a grim death.
Newer plants are supposed to use captive bolt guns, but Terrazas said he was uncertain whether the new regulations were being followed.
The plants in Zacatecas serve the European market, which bars the importation of meat from animals that have not been stunned prior to being bled.
"The use of a pole-axe, hammer or puntilla is prohibited by the Convention. Furthermore, large animals must neither be suspended nor have their movements restricted before being stunned" the European Convention's slaughter law states.
In Canada, horses at two large plants in Quebec and Alberta, are killed with a .22-caliber shot to the head, said the plants' owner, Claude Bouvry.
More than 18,000 horses were exported to Canada through June this year, a 26 percent rise over the same period last year. Those numbers are likely to rise, at least in the short term, given the ruling last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ending horse slaughter in Illinois.
For the time being, American horses will continue to be shipped by American traders to foreign-owned plants and butchered. Their meat will continue to make their way into small shops like Dennise Reta's El Lucero in downtown Juárez, where customers can buy anything from cutlets to steaks to ground meat.
Jackie, I've seen the sickening videos of the way they slaughter horses, and it's beyond sick. Especially the Mexican ones. My sister lives near one of those plants in Alberta, and every weaned colt from the PMU (pregnant mare urine) farms goes directly to those slaughter houses. It's disgusting.
It is so horrable! I have seen the videos also and I have to agree that the Mexican Slaughter houses are the most horrable ever. I wish we could make these horrable places shut down. All of those poor horses being killed a horrable death, for no reason at all.
The difference between first and fith in a race is the amount of pampering you give your horse.