13 Investigates: Indiana horses sent to slaughter

“Kill horses” wait at the Shipshewana Auction to be transported to slaughter.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - Despite the closure of all horse slaughterhouses in the United States, 13 Investigates has discovered thousands of Indiana horses are still ending up on dinner plates. A 3-month Eyewitness News investigation shows local horses are being slaughtered for their meat following a long journey that begins in Indiana, and undercover video raises questions about how the horses are killed.

Race horses, work horses, and ponies that used to be pets – they are among thousands of horses sold each year at livestock auctions in Indiana.

The auctions are the beginning of a long pipeline that fuels a multi-million dollar horse meat industry, and an Eyewitness News undercover investigation followed that pipeline to see how it works.

Many of the horses begin their journey at the Shipshewana Horse Auction in northern Indiana. This month, WTHR attended the auction and watched one man purchase most of the horses. Jeroslav Gold, owner of Roping J Ranch in Fair Haven, Mich., is known as a "kill buyer" because many of the horses he buys are sent to slaughter.

After Gold bought dozens of horses in Shipshewana, they were taken to a large holding pen behind the auction barn. Thirty-six hours later, just before midnight on a Saturday evening, the horses were loaded onto a livestock trailer and transported to his farm. 13 Investigates then followed a truckload of Gold's horses to Canada, where they were delivered to the Viande Richelieu slaughterhouse in Massueville, Quebec.

The 15-hour truck ride from Shipshewana to Richelieu (stops not included) covers more than 800 miles.

"I feel if there is a good horse, it should not be slaughtered. But there are lots of horses there [at the auction] that there's nothing you can do with them, and it's better to humanely slaughter them than have them suffer in a field where people cannot take care of them," Gold said.

But many horses delivered to Richelieu appeared to be younger horses in good health, and whether those horses are slaughtered humanely is now the subject of rigorous debate.

Inside the slaughterhouse

13 Investigates obtained undercover video shot earlier this year inside Richelieu. The video, provided by the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition, shows how horses are killed.

Inside the slaughterhouse, each horse is led to a metal pen called a "kill box." A worker then shoots the animal in the head with a .22 caliber rifle.

When slaughtered properly, the bullet is supposed to enter a horse's brain at an angle that will instantly render the animal unconscious, resulting in a quick death and little or no suffering.

But CHDC's undercover video shows multiple instances in which horses at Richelieu are shot in the face at awkward angles. The shooter's poor aim means some horses must be shot two, even three times before they are dead.

"It's just complete chaos and brutality, and the suffering is really unimaginable," said Twyla Francois, CHDC's central region director and lead investigator.

Francois helped expose conditions at Richelieu and other Canadian horse slaughterhouses when she first began investigating the facilities four years ago. Since then, she's been pressuring the Canadian government for better oversight and more humane treatment of horses sent to slaughter. She believes the most recent video showing procedures inside Richelieu shows why horse slaughter isn't a good idea at all.

"A number of horses were shot in one eye, then the other eye. They're flailing around. Horses are classic flight animals. When they're scared of something they bolt, which simply doesn't allow for an efficient humane slaughter in an assembly line fashion," Francois said.

Banned in the United States

Horses are not commercially slaughtered in the United States -- at least not now.

In 2005, Congress withdrew funding for federal horsemeat inspections. Two years later, a federal court upheld a Texas law that bans the sale of horses for human consumption and lawmakers in Illinois approved legislation to make horse slaughter illegal. The nation's last three horse slaughterhouses – all in Texas and Illinois – were effectively shut down.

More than 100,000 American horses are now shipped each year to be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico. Slaughterhouses in those countries are booming -- thanks to the sudden decline in US horse processing. Some horse slaughter advocates argue horses were better off being slaughtered in the United States, where they traveled much shorter routes during transit and were killed under the jurisdiction of federal inspectors.

"The animal rights activists closed down all the [US] slaughterhouses, so that's fine and dandy," Gold said. "But the real end result of their work is horses now go to Canada and Mexico on long trips. They're still being slaughtered, so what did that accomplish?"

13 Investigates watched Canadian workers unload hundreds of horses that are shipped to Richelieu by the truckload 24 hours a day.

Employees at the slaughterhouse told 13 Investigates not to videotape anything.

"Go away," one worker said in French.

"You give me your [video] cassette and wait for police to come," said a Richelieu manager, who repeatedly tried to grab WTHR's video cameras on a public street in front of the slaughterhouse. Later, the manager and other Richelieu employees surrounded WTHR's news car with their own vehicles in an attempt to prevent the news crew from leaving Massueville. WTHR staff eventually maneuvered around the blockade and left the small town without surrendering our video.

The manager, who would not identify himself, declined to comment on the way in which horses are slaughtered.

Horsemeat – succulent or contaminated?

Kill buyers attend regularly-scheduled horse auctions in Noblesville, Rushville and Shipshewana to help meet high demand in a lucrative international horse meat industry. While eating horse is considered taboo by most people in the United States, the meat is very popular in France, Belgium, Japan and parts of Canada.

13 Investigates found ground horsemeat and horse tenderloins for sale at grocery stores in Montreal, and some restaurants in Ontario and Quebec feature cheval (horse) filets and pâté on their dinner menus.

"Horses are livestock. They're not pets," said Martin Kouprie, a world-renowned chef at Pangaea restaurant in Toronto. "They've got cute little faces but that's as far as it goes."

Kouprie is a big fan of horse and he's served it to thousands of customers. "It's a beautiful meat. It's succulent. It's sweet. It's rich. It's fine textured. People just love it," he said.

But nowadays, Kouprie isn't cooking horsemeat at all. He removed it from the menu because slaughterhouses cannot tell him where the horses come from and whether the meat is free of toxic medications.

"I cannot in good conscience serve that to my customers," said Kouprie. "Every ingredient in my kitchen has a story, and if I don't know that story, I cannot serve it."

Nicholas Dodman, a veterinarian and program director of the Animal Behavior Department at Tufts University, believes horse meat in the human diet may be very dangerous.

"Horses are like a pharmaceutical soup, full of drugs that are not intended for humans," Dodman said. "They're flying under the radar and people are eating meat that's contaminated."

This year, Dodman published an article in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that suggests the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone is present in many American horses slaughtered in Canada for human consumption. The article states "phenylbutazone is banned for use in any animal intended for human consumption because it causes serious and lethal idiosyncratic adverse effects in humans … The permissive allowance of such horsemeat for human consumption poses a serious public health risk."

New laws introduced

Concerns over the horse meat industry and its treatment of horses prompted Canada's House of Commons to introduce a bill that would prohibit importing and exporting horses and horsemeat for human consumption. This month, supporters of the bill staged demonstrations across Canada, marching in Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Charlottetown.

A similar effort in underway in the United States, where Congress is now considering a ban on the export of American horses for slaughter. Indiana Congressman Dan Burton is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, which faces stiff opposition from American farmers.

"After learning about some of the shocking methods of horse slaughter, and talking with a number of horse owners, I decided to support the 'Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,'" Burton explained in a written statement to Eyewitness News. "My goal is not to penalize responsible farmers or other caretakers of animals, but to deter people from participating in the inhumane slaughter of horses."

Professor Mark Russell, a horse management expert at Purdue University, says banning horse slaughter could have unintended consequences, causing more misery for thousands of horses.

"Right now we have this huge oversupply of horses, and the economy is a contributing factor," he said. "We have a lot of horses being neglected now. People are turning them loose. People are not able to feed them. We don't know where to send them."

Some states are again looking at horse slaughterhouses as a way to deal with an oversupply of unwanted horses. In March, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal signed a law that allows the Wyoming Board of Livestock to slaughter abandoned, stray, feral or abused horses that enter into its jurisdiction.

"Problem with no easy answer"

Francois believes healthy horses should not be slaughtered, and she advises families with old, unwanted horses to humanely euthanize them, instead of sending the animals to an auction where they will likely be shipped to slaughter. "That's the responsible way to do it," she said, adding that CHDC has launched a program to help horse owners pay the cost of euthanizing their old horses.

Russell says those costs – and the additional labor associated with properly euthanizing a horse and disposing of its carcass – deters many horse owners from making that choice.

"It's the horse owners' responsibility to make sure the end of life is handled properly, and the quickest, calmest way you can take an animal is the most humane," he said. "But the bottom line is people are giving horses away at best, and at worst they're not taking care of their horses. It's become a problem with no easy answer."

Without any slaughterhouses currently operating in the United States, auction operators say they provide a convenient, cost-effective alternative for horse owners who no longer want their animals.

"Do I think horses should be slaughtered? Absolutely," said Keith Lambright, auctioneer and owner of the Shipshewana Auction. "If you didn't, you'd just have an abundance of old horses that have nowhere to go. It's no different than a junk car someone has to get rid of. Every life has to come to an end at some point."

Lambright said he is skeptical of reports alleging some horses purchased at his auction are slaughtered inhumanely at Canadian slaughterhouses. "I don't think animals should be misused or mistreated, but what Canada does is their business. What Canada does is not my problem. When they cross the border, it's out of my hands," he told WTHR.

To the rescue

The lucky horses end up in the hands of horse enthusiasts like Anthea Larke.

The owner of Meadowlarke Stables outside of Toronto has rescued more than 100 American horses headed to Canadian slaughterhouses in the past two years.

"They were being fattened up for slaughter and a group of us decided it just seemed too sad if … they'd be slaughtered and on a dinner plate in Europe," she said. "I'm absolutely horrified the things that go on in these slaughterhouses. If we have to slaughter horses, can't we do it at least in a humane way?"

In Canada and the United States, there is a shortage of farms willing to accept and care for unwanted horses.

Non-profit rescue groups like Indiana Horse Rescue provide boarding facilities and placement for horses that are neglected, abused, abandoned, or at-risk of going to slaughter. IHR began its operations by purchasing horses from the kill lot of the Shipshewana Horse Auction. Now most of its horses come from private owners who can no longer care for their animals. The organization currently provides services for 200 to 300 Indiana horses per year. With offices in Frankfort, Winslow, Cannelton and Owensville, organizers say they can accommodate even more.

"We have a lot of room -- over 800 acres -- and can take in hundreds of horses," said IHR farm manager Kathryn Caldwell. "Finding enough funding and volunteers is always our major problem."

Caldwell says additional funding could help prevent many more Indiana horses from being sent to Canada or Mexico. "We'd rather have an animal euthanized humanely than take that God-awful trip to the slaughterhouse," she said.

Larke agrees. "It's disgusting what goes on in those slaughterhouses," she said. "It's almost as if no one's watching."

More oversight?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is charged with oversight of that country's horse slaughterhouses. Following the release of CHDC's undercover video, the agency has been criticized for poorly monitoring procedures inside Canada's horse slaughter facilities. In response to the video, CFIA's chief veterinary officer promised a full investigation and "intensified oversight" at the slaughterhouses.

Kouprie would like to see the Canadian government go a step further. The chef has petitioned inspectors and lawmakers for an inspection system that would also help identify where horsemeat is coming from. He is not optimistic that such a system will be approved.

"Things are not changing anytime soon," he said. "Actually, they're getting more secretive and there's a lot of mis-information out there. The horse industry has to regulate itself first before the government will step in and they don't want to do that, so we're left with a system that is providing horsemeat for the consumer that has no grading system."

Even if Canada does enact more stringent regulations, Kouprie admits many Canadians don't support the horse slaughter industry that is thriving in his country – let alone the idea of a horsemeat hamburger.

"They don't see the horse as livestock. They see it as a friend – and a lot of people don't want to eat friends," he said.

Indiana Horse Rescue Groups:

Indiana Horse Rescue

Phone: 317-459-2189 or 812-729-7697

Spoiled Acres Rescue 

Phone: 812-577-5532

Horse-Angels Inc. 

Phone: 812-876-0711

Canadian Horse Defence Coalition and its slaughterhouse videos - Warning - the video contained via this link is graphic and may be disturbing to some people.