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By John Hanchette
OLEAN -- Newspaper editors and columnists would like to think that in a perfect world and enlightened democracy, the way it works is this:
Columnist writes impelling column on some cause or problem. Reading public responds and pressures politicians. Politicians draft legislation. Legislation passes and is signed into law. Problem is solved.
This, of course, is a forlorn hope. It rarely happens that way. The politicians, though, often go through the motions.
And so it is with the previously covered subject I seek to update in this space -- the widespread slaughter of horses for human consumption. Most Americans still seem blissfully unaware that more than 65,000 horses are slaughtered here each year in three United States butchering plants and shipped overseas so that well-to-do European and Japanese gourmands can eat them at $15 to $18 a pound.
When I first wrote about the subject late last year, the response was overwhelming. The Niagara Falls Reporter got letter after letter of appreciation for being informed on a little-covered subject, of outrage that the situation still exists, and of inquiry as to how the reader can help.
What has happened since to save American horses from such a grisly end?
Ummm, how about nothing?
Well, not exactly nothing, but nothing good from the standpoint of federal action.
Perhaps when you watched the Kentucky Derby last month, you saw NBC sports commentator Bob Costas sipping a mint julep from a commemorative cup -- and telling the viewers that for the first time, the traditional Churchill Downs race-day drink cost him $1,000 a pop.
That, he explained, is because the money from those expensive libations goes to establish Greener Pastures, a new humane retirement program for thoroughbred racehorses.
That's because the racing community, along with the general public, was shocked to learn that along with draft horses, farm animals, everyday plugs and wild mustangs, some of the most celebrated racehorses of all time -- including 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, and Exceller, the only horse in history to beat two Triple Crown winners -- have ended up on foreign dinner plates. In fact, racehorses are preferred for butchering and eating for their lean, tender, muscular cuts that contain lower cholesterol.
Ellen-Cathryn Nash, president of a horse-rescue group called Manes and Tails Organization, says she has already saved from foreign devouring a son of the great Seattle Slew, a grandson of the famous Secretariat, and a great-granddaughter of Secretariat.
Members of Congress, at least those who pay attention to their constituents, tried to do something about all this in the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Act by simply refusing to provide new funding for the federal Agriculture Department meat inspectors who by law have to assure the health, hygiene, absence of toxicity and safe edibility of U.S. horse carcasses exported for human consumption.
Even that was no smooth sailing as Texas Republican congressman Henry Bonilla furtively tried to strip the denial-of-funding language from the appropriations bill during the closed conference committee negotiations that reconcile House and Senate intent preceding final draft. He was thwarted only after the National Horse Protection Coalition exposed him with an expensive full-page advertisement in The New York Times. President Bush signed the act.
But as bureaucrats do, bureaucrats in the Ag Department figured out a way to ignore the public will and the intentions of elected representatives in Congress. They simply accepted an offer from the slaughterhouses to pay for their own horsemeat inspections in a "fee for services" scheme that would use business funds instead of taxpayer monies -- a clear violation of congressional intent that Congress doesn't seem to give a hoot about.
Despite knowledge of the residues of carcinogenic drugs that are used on many racehorses, all the USDA twisted rules provide for is a rubber stamp on an export certificate of health signed by a veterinarian who is paid, when all is said and done, by monies from the owners of the killing plants. Talk about a system just begging for corruption.
There are three horse-slaughtering plants in the United States -- Beltrex Corp. in Forth Worth, Texas, Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Texas, and Carvel International in DeKalb, Ill. Among them, they do about $50 million-plus in sales a year. The locals have put more pressure on them than the feds. A move by the state attorney general in Texas to shut down the two Texas plants under state agricultural codes failed three years ago when high-priced Washington attorneys successfully argued federal law supersedes state law.
The Dallas Crown slaughterhouse in Kaufman has been ordered closed by the Texas Board of Adjustments after residents complained about the abattoir for years. The Kaufman zoning board declared the plant a public nuisance and health and safety hazard last year. The Belgian owners of the plant have filed a suit to appeal the board's decision.
Three months ago, a federal court in Washington, D.C., rejected the Doris Day Animal League's request for a temporary restraining order that would have extended the temporary ban on horse slaughter in the United States occasioned by the congressional appropriations action.
The killing plant owners claim only legal "humane methods" are used to end the horses' lives. You judge. Here is how it happens, according to Jill Starr, founder of the wild horse-rescue organization Lifesavers, Inc. in Lancaster, Calif.:
"Depressed and confused, (the horse) stands nervously on the cold, slippery floor. She is edging through a funnel-like chute and into a large wooden stall. Suddenly, her depression turns to terror. Her acute sense of hearing and smell, both way beyond human development, forebode her fate. (The horse) begins to tremble violently. She urinates on herself. She smells death.
"A worker appears, wielding a strange mechanical instrument. He brings it down with brutal, unyielding force. The retractable four-inch bold fractures the horse's skull, driving bone fragments deep into her brain. Again and again the bolt violently thrusts. But it does not kill. (The horse) collapses, writhing fully conscious, still alive, still aware, onto a conveyor belt. From somewhere, another contraption snares her leg, lifting her upside down, her head dangling towards the floor. Terror and pain bulge from the innocent mare's brown eyes.
"Then, the blade appears. With one vicious swipe (her) throat is sliced. Her heart continues to beat as her blood -- her life -- collects in a thick red pool on the floor. ... Tomorrow, she will be sold for dinner."
There are currently two bills in the congressional hopper -- collectively called the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act -- which would effectively end the killing of American horses for foreign consumption. They are numbered Senate 1915 and House of Representatives 503. It is unlikely they will become law unless you raise pluperfect hell with your elected officials in Washington. Even then, it's a longshot.
When news reached here last week that crackerjack attorney Ralph A. Boniello Jr. had died at 92 in a Lewiston nursing home, it was received with sadness -- and appreciation.
The man stood out among peers as a wise counselor, honest citizen, judicious civic leader and wry friend for those lucky enough to have reason to communicate with him.
Boniello was winding down his quarter century tenure as deputy corporation counsel for the city of Niagara Falls in 1965, my first full year as a rookie reporter for the Niagara Falls Gazette, then a newspaper of competence and accuracy. He always had time for a young, naive reporter asking stupid questions about government and law. His patience was astounding, and you could take his word to the bank.
If you were covering City Hall (as I was), and you were inundated with several conflicting and obviously bogus self-serving versions of what had actually gone down on some hot topic then before the City Council, all it took was a trip across the street to his law office to get the straight skinny. Unlike the ubiquitous spinmeisters of today, in dealing with reporters, Ralph never threw you the curve. In terms of fact and advice, he always served up fastballs -- straight down the middle. It was the same for his clients.
In later years, I was editor of that paper when we happened upon the Love Canal story -- which grew into a major national issue (and is still being denied as a true hazardous waste problem by the right-wing enviro-crackpots). As the story developed, I was not surprised to learn that shortly after World War II, Boniello had sagely advised the city's school board officials to turn down a "civic duty" gift offer from Hooker Chemical of vacant land along the 99th Street corridor.
The education officials, of course, ignored his counsel and built a school atop a buried waste deposit of tons of some of the most toxic chemicals known to man.
Boniello -- among his five children -- fathered three more attorneys, including New York State Supreme Court Justice Ralph A. Boniello III. As always when someone important in your past dies, you wish you had kept closer contact through the intervening years. I didn't, but it was honor enough just to have known and conversed with such a grand man and respected public servant.
John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.
Niagara Falls Reporter
June 27 2006