As the double-decker semi-tractor trailer traveled along rural Indiana State Rt. 1 just north of Lawrenceburg on a sunny afternoon in 2004 and approached a curve in the road, the driver lost control of his load and hit a guardrail on the right side.
Although he quickly corrected course and the truck cab remained on the road, he couldn't defy the laws of gravity. The unwieldy two-story trailer tipped over and fell down an embankment, striking a utility pole. Downed electrical wires started a small fire.
The trailer contained 52 animals, mostly horses, as well as a few mules. As onlookers and people who lived at a nearby farm rushed to the scene, they discovered several horses still trapped inside the trailer and squirming in agony, others lying critically injured on the side of the road and some already dead, killed by the impact. Blood and bits of horse flesh were scattered about.
Witnesses say it took nearly 90 minutes for most of the veterinarians to arrive. Some passersby wanted to shoot the horses that were beyond saving, to put them out of their misery, but were prevented by sheriff's deputies.
The driver and two passengers suffered minor injuries.
In all, 21 dead horses were removed from the scene, including 12 that were euthanized. One horse was given to the owner of the property where the accident occurred as payment for damages, and the remaining 30 animals were boarded onto another trailer and continued their trek.
For Paula Drake, a lifelong horse enthusiast and rider, the accident raised several troubling questions. Why were the horses in trailers designed for cattle, which are much smaller? How safe is the use of double-decker trailers for horses? And where exactly were the horses headed?
The answers shocked Drake and other horse lovers, exposing a dirty secret about the buying and selling of horses in the United States.
Shipping records for the horses in the Indiana accident were curiously vague or incomplete, but animal advocacy groups say the circumstances indicate the horses were headed for slaughter so they could be turned into steaks.
"I was embarrassed to say I never knew about this issue until two years ago, even though I rode horses all of my life," Drake says. "I thought horses were just put down gently, like an old dog. I was in the dark on this issue, as I think most people are."
Calling on Congress
American horsemeat is considered a delicacy in some nations, and slaughterhouses in the United States, Canada and Mexico fill the demand for gourmands. Horsemeat is a sought-after item in Belgium, France, Japan and elsewhere.
Unknown to many owners who sell their horses at auctions, some in attendance are so-called "kill buyers," who want to buy the animals to kill them, processing them into food.
The U.S. horse population is about 9.2 million. Roughly 88,000 horses a year are shipped to U.S. slaughterhouses, with another 35,000 shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.
"I didn't realize it was as big a business as it is until we started doing research after the accident," says Shelly Price of Falmouth, Ky., who owns three horses and a pony.
Although the United States has laws regulating the treatment of dogs and cats and how they can be euthanized, horses don't enjoy the same legal protection. They're treated in the same manner as cattle and pigs, even though most people would classify horses as pet animals — and be repulsed by the idea of eating them.
The revelations prompted Drake, Price and others to form Speak Up For Horses (speakupforhorses.org), a non-profit group that works with animal protection officers in seizure and neglect cases and tries to rescue horses headed to slaughter. Also, the all-volunteer group educates the public about the horse slaughtering industry and lobbies state and federal lawmakers to end the practice.
"We're working toward more humane horse legislation," says Drake, who lives in Anderson Township and boards two horses in Amelia.
Last year activists got a bill passed in the House that would prohibit horse slaughter, but the companion legislation languished in the Senate. Later, when Congress passed an omnibus spending bill, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) added a provision that allows the slaughter of wild horses grazing on federal land. Drake hopes the new Democrat-controlled Congress will be more receptive.
States aren't waiting for the federal government. California already has laws protecting horses, and a bill pending in the Kentucky General Assembly would outlaw their slaughter there and prohibit their transportation to other states to be converted into food.
Hacked to death
While more fervent animal rights activists might call the group's efforts hypocritical for not also working to stop the slaughter of cows and pigs, Drake is comfortable making the distinction.
"We don't raise our horses to be eaten," she says. "There are places in the world where dogs and cats are being eaten. Does that mean we should allow that, too?"
Horses targeted for slaughter endure a process that is neither gentle nor painless. Typically, they're transported in trailer pens designed for cattle and must keep their heads and necks stooped for hours during the trip to the slaughterhouse. Upon arrival, workers at U.S. facilities try to shoot bolts into the horses' heads as they jostle and move about their pen.
"It's not unusual to have them shoot the bolt multiple times" to kill a horse, Drake says.
In Canadian slaughterhouses, the horses typically are shot using a .22-caliber rifle, while the animals taken to Mexican facilities often are hacked to death with sabers.
Most horse-lovers are unaware of the gruesome practice. Some of the horses bought by kill buyers have had their manes groomed and beribboned by owners oblivious to the animals' eventual fate.
"I would venture to say three-fourths of these horses wouldn't be sent to slaughter if their former owners knew what was being done," Drake says.
Three factories in the United States are known to slaughter horses, one in Illinois and two in Texas. Attempts to contact representatives of those companies for comment were unsuccessful.
Most horses sold for slaughter are healthy enough that they don't warrant being put to death, Price says. For horses in worse condition, euthanasia is preferable.
"The slaughter of horses is all about turning a quick profit," Drake says. "If the horses were kept alive, they could be absorbed like other horses that are put out to pasture. It won't be easy, but it could be done. It's the right thing to do. Whether it's easy shouldn't be relevant." ©