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Horses not out of woods
Two sides increase lobbying over ban on slaughterhouses
By Benjamin Grove
Sun Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Last month a far-flung network of animal activists nearly saw a long-awaited victory slip away.
Activists have been trying to ban horse slaughterhouses, and the House and Senate had approved legislation that banned the use of federal funds to pay government inspectors at the nation's three horse slaughterhouses, which effectively would force them to close.
But in late October, the amendment was in jeopardy. It appeared that several members of the House-Senate panel that was finalizing the bill were quietly planning to remove the amendment.
Activists, operating in remote corners from Kentucky to Montana, inundated key lawmakers with thousands of e-mails and phone calls. A few legislative aides told activists they fielded more messages on horse slaughter than they had received on John Roberts' Supreme Court nomination and Hurricane Katrina combined.
The legislation survived.
The public pressure helped save the provision, according to Nancy Perry, Humane Society of the United States vice president of government affairs.
"There were too many people watching," she said in an interview.
But the fight to ban horse slaughter is far from over. Activists expect that plant owners will attempt to get around the legislation by using private inspectors.
And the bill only bans horse slaughter for seven months. After some final-hour negotiations, it was determined that the ban would not take effect until early March. More significantly, it is effective only until Sept. 30.
So activists are gearing up for another assault on Congress to make the legislation permanent. They hope that a rising surge of public pressure will goad lawmakers to act.
But as Perry acknowledged, "it is a heavy lift." To make the slaughter ban permanent, the legislation likely will have to survive a hearings process in the House and Senate, starting in the commerce committees.
Critics of the legislation, including a few key members of Congress, say that closing U.S. horse slaughterhouses will force people to sell their horses to plants in Mexico and Canada that may have less humane killing methods.
The U.S. plants -- two in Texas and one in Illinois -- process about 70,000 horses a year for meat for human consumption overseas.
Among the critics is Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who has blocked horse slaughter bans. Goodlatte has said the plants offer an effective method for dealing with unwanted horses, adding that a ban would lead to the abuse of unwanted animals.
Another influential player -- the American Veterinary Medical Association -- agrees. Currently the plants offer a regulated, humane option for disposing of the animals, said Michael Chaddock, director of association government relations. Without that option, many horses could be killed in cruel ways or simply turned loose and left to fend for themselves.
Diseased carcasses could become a problem, Chaddock said. The veterinarian, who has raised horses, also noted that horse "retirement centers" often have no government oversight.
Chaddock stressed that veterinarians are not endorsing the consumption of horse meat.
"Our concern is for the welfare of these animals," he said.
Another chief opponent of the bill appears to be Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, chairman of the House-Senate panel that had considered removing the horse slaughter amendment. Bonilla's office did not return calls this week.
The plants are seeking ways to stay open, including the use of private inspectors, a representative for the Texas plants said.
Managers at the two plants, which employ 160 workers and contribute millions of dollars to local economies, are seeking clarification from the Agriculture Department on whether they can use private inspectors.
Owners fear the plants could close for good if the ban is made permanent, said Jim Bradshaw, who acts as a spokesman for the Dallas Crown and Beltex plants. They are leaning on congressmen, just like the slaughter ban activists are, Bradshaw said.
"We've got some people on our side (in Congress), and there are a number of people on the other side," he said.
Among the horse activist allies is Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a Commerce Committee member, who has been a leader in the push for a slaughter ban.
"The senator's record speaks for itself," Ensign spokesman Jack Finn said when asked if Ensign would mount a vigorous effort to make the ban permanent next year.
Activists are ready to take their "halls and walls" lobbying effort -- catching lawmakers and staffers outside their offices -- back to Capitol Hill as soon as lawmakers return to Washington, said Liz Ross, director of special projects at the Doris Day Animal League.
She noted that animal protection activists had enlisted the support of horse racing industry leaders, philanthropic donors and celebrities.
"People are really engaged," Ross said. "But by the same token, our opposition has made it known that they are going to fight us very hard on this."
Benjamin Grove can be reached at (202) 662-7436 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.