Wyoming Representative predicts horse processing will begin within a few monthsWritten by Christy Martinez
Her involvement in the topic began shortly after she was elected to the Wyoming Legislature in 2006.
“My dad had a team of Belgian mares with some age on them, and one broke her leg and was put down. He took the single mare to the St. Onge sale barn, dropped her off the night before and came home. When the check came in the mail, it was for $14, and that was our wake-up call,” she says. “What happened?”
“The business of processing horses is nobody’s main business – it was always just something we had available when selling a horse we didn’t use or didn’t need or that didn’t work out, so none of us were paying attention and understanding what was happening to us,” she continues.
Today Wallis spearheads the national effort to reopen horse processing plants in the United States, and she was key in founding United Organizations of the Horse, a national group with members from all facets of the horse industry.
States, D.C. targeted
Following the closures at the state level, Wallis says HSUS went to Washington, D.C. to attach a rider to the ag appropriations bill that said USDA couldn’t spend a dime to inspect horsemeat. She says they also included a second rider that shut down processors who were operating on a waiver that allowed the inspection cost to come out of their own pocket.
In November 2011, however, those riders were stripped from the most recent ag appropriations bill, leaving room for horse processing to resume in the U.S.
Focus: controversial horse issues
“We have to team up and find our allies,” says Wallis, adding that’s how the United Organizations of the Horse group came about. “United Horsemen came about to deal with two hot-button issues nobody wanted to touch – the need to have humane and regulated horse processing in the U.S., and the need to control the overpopulation and management problems of feral horses not only on the BLM but on state, private and tribal grounds.”
“The BLM has a mandate to manage their horses, but they also have the luxury of calling on the U.S. taxpayers to fund it. The tribes don’t have that – the Yakima in the Northwest have 16,000 horses on land that would responsibly carry 3,500. The Navajo nation thinks they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 to 75,000 head of excess horses. The tribes have seen a huge uptick in the number of horses kicked out on the open range, and a number of them have BLM freeze brands.”
“We have a rescue community with maybe 6,000 spots for rescue horses across the country, and around 200,000 horses with no place to go every year,” says Wallis.
“We need slaughter back, and we need a responsible way to manage these horses,” she says.
As a result of the cooperation amongst not only the equine industry but also lab research, circuses and zoos, the group was able to convince Congress that horse processing should have never been put into the appropriations bill with no hearings, which would have allowed horse people to explain the inevitable result.
“Last spring we were fortunate to receive the GAO report on horse welfare, which was title ‘The Unintended Consequences of Domestic Slaughter Cessation,’ and we were able to convince enough Senators that the ban needed to be taken off the appropriations bill,” she says.
Groups seeks plant
“Now we’re in a full-court press to get horse plants up and running around the country,” says Wallis, mentioning a company in which she’s involved – Unified Equine. “The first thing we did was survey the country, looking for a plant that was currently or had recently processed large mammals and was already USDA-inspected and that was somewhere in the southern Midwest.”
She says their aim is for the first plant to be quickly brought up to speed and used as an example, with all the “bells and whistles” to show the world how to process horses, and how to do it right.
“We think we need to be open about what we’re doing, and talk about it as a responsible, ethical way to deal with horses that aren’t needed or wanted for another purpose,” states Wallis. “We have some good investors and partners – we’ve partnered with a Belgian company that markets to 24 countries, and we’re going for it.”
In addition to a promising location in Missouri, Wallis lists southeast Iowa, Roswell, N.M., Hermiston, Ore. and Riverton as additional potential locations.
“There’s a lot of activity, and a lot of excitement,” she says.
Of the Riverton area, she says the local economic development members invited her there to speak about developing a horse processing plant.
“I think there will a plant processing horses within a couple months. I don’t know if it will be in New Mexico, Missouri or Iowa, but I predict we’ll have a few horses headed through a plant in just a few months,” predicts Wallis. “It will take a while for us to get to a balance in the horse industry, and it will never be huge – even when we’re in total balance, which we think will be six or eight plants scattered around the country, we’re still only talking about 200,000 head per year, and that’s miniscule next to the beef or hog business, but it’s what the horse world needs to have a healthy industry and a healthy market.”
Shut down: how it began
“What happened was that well-funded, well-organized radicals were successful in closing down the last three horse processing plants in the U.S. in 2007,” says Wyoming State Representative Sue Wallis of the closure of the U.S. horse processing industry.
“Most people don’t understand how we got into the mess we’re in today, and it stems from the Great Depression,” says Wallis. “During the Depression, one thing the New Deal implemented was the Agriculture Adjustment Act, which forced ranchers to sell their livestock to the government, on the theory that the reason the cattle, hog and sheep market was so poor was not because the economy was ruined and nobody had money to buy food, but because there were too many livestock.
“My grandparents were forced to sell their cattle for a dollar a head, and the government came and dug huge pits with bulldozers, drove the cattle in, shot them and covered them with lye, in a country where people were starving to death, so nobody could use the meat.
“Then, when WWII broke out, there wasn’t enough meat in this country to feed the troops, and almost simultaneously there were many excess horses because, when farmers couldn’t hire somebody to drive their teams they bought tractors. John Deere took over the country in the ‘40s and there were excess horses standing around, but they were good meat and the government and the people started using it.”
“When the war was over, the cheap horses were a significant threat to the cattle market, because horsemeat is similar to beef and unscrupulous characters were buying excess horses and passing them off as beef,” says Wallis. “The cattle people did a ‘whisper campaign,’ reminding the guys back from the war of eating nasty cold canned meat in a muddy trench, and it was easy to get across the idea that horsemeat was unfit for human consumption. A couple states, Texas included, went to the extent of passing a law that horsemeat was not for human consumption.”
“That was 1948, and the issue was market share – it had zero to do with animal welfare, but that’s the law in 2007 that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) dug up in Texas and took to court to shut down two of the three existing horse plants,” she states.