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Not all the pretty horses come home

Maine farm plays role in export to Canada slaughterhouses

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / March 8, 2010

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VASSALBORO, Maine - Spread over a couple of hundred acres here, a bucolic mix of pasture and woodland forms a picturesque home for a century-old family business that provides horses and saddlery to families, summer camps, and riding schools.

But proprietor Brenda Hemphill, who is called a “kill buyer’’ by critics, is also an unapologetic businesswoman who ships horses to Quebec to be slaughtered for human consumption, primarily in Europe. Hemphill said her business provides an alternative for horse owners who can no longer afford their animals’ upkeep or find them a suitable home.

“It’s common sense,’’ Hemphill explained. “People need to make money.’’

Killing horses for food, a thing of the past in the United States, has continued in the slaughterhouses of Canada as the economy has led more people to abandon their horses. Now, with new horsemeat restrictions set to take effect in Europe July 31, critics expect to see horse traffic pick up through New England - and farms like Hemphill’s - en route to the two slaughterhouses in Quebec.

“People are trying to get as many killed as possible before the mallet comes down,’’ said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “This is not going to starving people. It’s going to the plates of gourmets in the Champs Elysees.’’

The low-fat, high-protein meat, observers said, can reach prices up to $20 a pound.

The new European restrictions, intended to keep sick or drugged animals from the food chain, will require horses bound for slaughter to have detailed medical and drug records or be quarantined for six months - regulations that could severely curtail the trade to Canada. Currently, those requirements do not exist and horses that have been injected with painkillers and steroids can enter the market with little or no oversight, Dodman said.

Farms that buy horses for slaughter rarely advertise openly. Instead, most horses that are bound for the meat market are purchased at large auctions, where buyers for slaughter often outbid others who want the horses for recreation or labor, Dodman said.

Hemphill did not provide sales figures for a business she acknowledged “is a topic that no one’s comfortable with.’’ She also did not discuss the origins of the horses she sends to slaughter and conceded that she depends on the seller to be honest about an animal’s drug history.

That opening, Dodman said, is potentially harmful for people who eat meat that might come from racehorses, which are routinely medicated to enhance their competitive performance. “How can we allow this to be shipped abroad?’’ Dodman asked.

“These animals are never treated as food animals their entire lives,’’ said Nancy Perry, vice president for government affairs at the Human Society of the United States. “In the course of being used as carriage horses, or show horses, or race horses, there are drugs and steroids given to them that are prohibited in animals for use for human consumption.’’

Hemphill, whose farm is the only one in Maine that state officials said ships horses to slaughter, stressed that the business is partly a response to tough economic times in which horse owners, facing monthly feeding bills of about $300 per horse, feel forced to give up animals they can no longer afford.

During the first 11 months of last year, 48,452 horses were exported from the United States to Canada for slaughter, according to Canadian government figures. That total is a jump from 42,318 for all of 2008, and a huge leap from the 32,452 for all of 2007.

In Massachusetts, an unprecedented number of horses are being surrendered to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The MSPCA accepted 69 horses in 2009 and is on pace to match or top that record this year, said Brian Adams, spokesman for the society. There are no data to track how many slaughtered horses come from Massachusetts, but critics said the trade touches every part of the country.

Surrendered horses are “a serious concern across the United States, because in many parts of the US, horses are just abandoned,’’ said Jon Olson, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau Horse Council.

Hemphill, who also buys and sells horses for a variety of benign uses, points out that the surplus horses must go somewhere. Allowing them to starve to death is not preferable to the slaughterhouse, she argued.

“There’s a very clean, quiet, easy way to do this,’’ Hemphill said. She added that she sends to the slaughterhouse only the animals “that we did not think we could train, heal, or educate. . . . If a horse is not usable, that’s a different story.’’

But to Carole-Terese Naser of nearby Palermo, no horse should be killed for food. In 2007, Naser bought six horses from Hemphill that Naser said had been bound for the slaughterhouse. Once animals go there, critics said, the protocol often is to stun the horses, hang them by the hooves, and cut their necks.

“I see horses in the same league as I see dogs and cats,’’ said Naser, who keeps two of the horses she got from Hemphill on her 16-acre farm. “From beginning to end, there’s nothing about this that’s OK with me.’’

To Naser and other activists, horses should be treated strictly as the companions, entertainment, and source of labor they have been for millennia throughout the world. One of the six horses Naser bought, a bay gelding, was adopted by the actress Priscilla Presley, who keeps the animal at her late husband’s Graceland estate. Horses are on earth “for a reason, and it certainly wasn’t to slaughter them,’’ Presley said of the tens of thousands of horses that are surrendered each year. “We have to come up with another solution. This is just so inhumane.’’

At Hemphill’s farm, however, business is business, and she contends slaughter is sometimes the most merciful end for a lame or broken-down animal.

“What’s the best outcome for a horse?’’ Hemphill said. “That’s where I’m coming from.’’