A horse is a horse - of course, of course - unless, of course, the horse is from the United States. Here, it is better to starve the horse than let it be a course in Kumamoto, where the horse is considered a delicacy. Which it is, of course, for the Japanese.

However, the arrogance of cultural imperialism has resulted in harm to surplus horses in this country. We don't eat horse meat, and no U.S. horse should end up on the platters of foreign diners, or so the so-called reasoning goes.

How it came to pass that the legal system can be manipulated to the extent that the United States can dictate to other societies as to what is fit to eat is American Exceptionalism carried to the absurd.

Having successfully forced the closure last year of the three remaining U.S. horse slaughter plants, which exported meat overseas, the animal rights crowd, in the name of acting humanely, would now preclude the shipment of excess horses to Canada or Mexico. They are beginning to rue their closure move. Live-horse exports to Mexico have tripled while reports of brutal slaughter methods filter back north.

Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, recently told the New York Times that the closures were "a step closer to the long-term goal of banning slaughter in North America." Note: North America.

The next step is already in Congress, as House and Senate bills await action that would make it a crime to transport horses anywhere for the purpose of slaughtering them for human consumption.

So what to do with horses no longer wanted or at the end of their useful life?

Those horse owners who truly care about their animals will see to that themselves - either with an injection of drug or lead.

But many hobby horse owners have learned that caring for them is an expensive proposition, and because salvage value is now nearly nothing and the cost of euthanasia and disposal is high, our equine friends are being neglected, even to the point of starvation.

Auction action

The 5-year-old quarter horse mare was in good condition, her winter coat a bit shaggy, as they get this time of year. A recent auction at Billings Livestock Commission was going in a negative direction when Benny Kropius blinked his eyes and bought the animal for $450.

Will she be going to the feedlot and slaughter soon?

"No," Kropius said, "I'll try to sell her as a brood mare."

But later that Saturday, he would purchase animals for transport to Shelby or Conrad for sorting and feeding before being trucked to Fort Macleod, Alberta, where horses are slaughtered for human consumption. The horse meat from Claude Bouvry's plant makes its way to France, Japan, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, said Kropius, who has bought horses on commission since 1971. He estimated that 9,000 to 10,000 horses a year from Bouvry's plant go overseas.

Until last year, there were three plants in the United States - two in Texas, one in Illinois - where horses for human consumption were killed and processed. But opponents, using state laws that were subsequently upheld by federal decisions, forced the closures. Now the nearest plants where horses are butchered are in Mexico and Canada. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a field man who travels the country to ensure that slaughter horses are being transported humanely to the borders.

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Bill Richardson, a horse buyer from Dallas, said only two of Mexico's 16 plants are certified by the European Union to export horse meat for human consumption. He sends five loads of 32 head each week to Mexican plants, he said.

"I buy horses for all reasons," Richardson said. But the limited competition for horse flesh has dropped prices by half or more. Horses that brought $500 to $600 a couple years ago now fetch $200 to $300.

And contrary to popular belief, horses no longer go to pet food. Horse flesh in dog food ended about 13 years ago, again at the instigation of animal rights activists. Owners of the Illinois plant reopened in Neudorff, Saskatchewan, Kropius said. The limited ability to move horses north and south has resulted in fewer horses being bought, which means the surplus is growing as the prices decline.

Seeking solutions

Americans own 9 million horses, up from 6 million in the mid-1990s, according to the American Horse Council.

To put a horse down is not an easy task. Disposal of a carcass is more difficult and unless one has a backhoe, there is the option of cremation. Typically, to have a veterinarian euthanize a horse runs about $75 to $200 depending on whether the vet comes to the horse or the horse comes to the vet. To cremate the animal costs $1,000 or more. The closest rendering plant is in Spokane, Wash.

Jake Frank, 92, of Park City has spent his life as a horseman. He has no objection to other people's eating horse. "We are not used to butchering him," he said. "The horse is a clean animal, and the meat is good."

Frank believes the animals deserve respect.

"If he's given his life for you, he deserves a decent burial, and you cannot just let him starve to death. It is better to use a bullet to put him to sleep," he said.

"No one has greater love for horses than I do. But we have to use some common sense here. Don't starve them or turn them loose."

The bills in Congress were introduced a year ago. House Resolution 503 was sent to the House Agriculture Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. No hearings or action have taken place. Senate Bill 311 was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in April by a vote of 15-7.

Such restrictions on interstate commerce raise constitutional questions and probably violate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty approved by the U.S. Senate in 1993. Such details are irrelevant when one is on a mission.

To date, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not seen fit to bring the Senate bill forward for a vote. Probably has something to do with horse sense, as Frank suggested.

Jim Gransbery is the former agricultural and political reporter at The Billings Gazette.

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