The pickup truck on U.S. 20 drives slowly, its red cattle trailer veering back and forth over this two-lane highway. The cargo, three horses much too large for the container, struggle to keep their footing.
As the trailer rocks, one horse's hind end rubs against the trailer doors, creating a blood-colored, burn-like wound. With every bump in the road, his haunches and shoulders hit the roof. His head is also forcibly lowered down to fit. Still, his drive to the Shipshewana auction will be better than the one to the slaughterhouse.
The Shipshewana Auction, Inc. in Shipshewana, Ind., holds a kill auction every Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. A kill auction is an auction for slaughter-bound horses whose meat will be sold overseas. It's termed a "loose auction" though it's common knowledge that the horses there are bought by buyers, called kill buyers, working for the three foreign-owned slaughterhouses operating in the United States. Horsemeat, a popular alternative to beef in the wake of mad cow disease, will be shipped to Italy, Belgium, France, Japan and Holland.
Toward the center of the huge, two-story auction barn, away from the small, seated, arena where work and saddle horses are auctioned, the horse with the bloodied dock stands among nearly 80 others crowded into five stalls. Thirteen to 17 horses of varied types are packed into side-by-side stalls approximately 10-by-40-feet. These are the kill pens.
The center stalls contain athletes - thoroughbreds, standardbreds and quarter horses - with shiny coats and shoed feet that click on the straw-covered concrete floor as they walk into the auction area. Unlike the horses on U.S. 20 this morning, these are delivered mid-week and/or in the middle of the night on back-roads so they're less likely to be seen.
The Indiana Board of Animal Health and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) would prefer the public believed horses sent to slaughter are past their prime.
Most horses in the kill auction are healthy and young, with some on the fleshy side, some with braided manes and leather bridles. No evidence of food or water is present. Signs of dehydration exist in the animals - like sunken eyes and temples. Indiana law says horses at market for more than 24 hours must have access to food and water, but most of these horses will spend less time than that here. Profusely sweating and skittish, many of the horses are unquestionably nervous. A small horse, sandwiched among others, continuously kicks a draft horse in the neck and face with neither one being able to gain space despite their struggle.
Stall by stall, one horse at a time is ushered into a partitioned bend between a series of gated enclosures where the kill auction discreetly commences. The auctioneer sputters through bid amounts as most horses, identified by numbered white hip tags, bound about in the space encircled by vacant, stony buyers, seemingly unmoved by the scene.
"4X," he shouts, indicating the winning buyer's ID number. A woman tallying the sales furiously scribbles transaction details from a decked walkway above where a crowd, including children and Amish, watch the kill auction below. 4X's horses are then maneuvered by teen-aged handlers into another crowded stall no different than the kill pens they just left.
The athletes, possibly retired racehorses from the two Indiana tracks, Indiana Downs and Hoosier Park, were going for about $300. "That's a good one," the auctioneer says of one that sells for $470. The auctioneer's voice becomes unhurried as he eyes the buyers, saying, "Look at the hips on that mare," of a fat, regal, gray draft horse, her head held high. She's calm and seems deliberate with every step as she faces a kill buyer.
Bidding starts at $700. The slaughterhouse will get $20 per pound for her. That's nearly an $18 profit margin. Bulky draft horses are most sought after by the kill buyers who get 20-40 cents per pound from slaughterhouses; the best kill buyers get more.
Two horses sustaining injuries walk through. One, dirty, thin and disfigured from a leg break that healed poorly long ago, sells for $125. Disoriented and possibly sedated, the other ragged, swaybacked horse staggers with a limp and incessantly sways its head. He's given free to the kill buyer.
A hearty horse that follows prompts the auctioneer to joke, "Here's a walkin' horse! Look at him walkin'!" A woman in the crowd rescues the last horse up for bid, a mini, for $100.
Any horse can wind up in this kill auction. Quota contractors supply horses to the kill auctions to keep the slaughterhouse's dollars rolling in. They comb the state for horses they can get cheap to turn a quick, usually cash, profit. Because the horses can change hands many times before reaching a kill auction, their paper trail can vanish - that means ownership and health records. Auction records therefore don't always show quota buyers as owners. Horses can also be stolen.
It takes just under 30 minutes to sell the nearly 80 horses at the Shipshewana auction. That would average some 4,000 horses sent annually to slaughter from there alone. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service/USDA, 65,976 American horses were slaughtered for meat in 2004.
"We need this because we have a pretty big thoroughbred industry in Indiana," Kimberly King says of CANTER Indiana, a national nonprofit affiliate that provides retiring thoroughbreds with opportunities for new careers as hunters, jumpers, sport horses or beloved pets. The Fox 59 news reporter and meteorologist volunteers with CANTER (Communications Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses) by walking the shed rows early every Saturday morning at Indiana Downs in Shelbyville, Ind., networking with trainers and owners and typically saying, "Would you like to find a new home for your horse? He's done racing." She explained, "We are purely a middle-man to give the trainer free advertising for the horse. We put the horse's picture on the Web and give the phone number of the trainer." Depending on how long a horse has been raced, thoroughbred prices range from $500 to the claiming price of a given track, which is $3,000 at Indiana Downs. CANTER receives no commission.
Hoosier Park, owned by Churchill Downs, has also recently partnered with CANTER Indiana. "We are thrilled to have both Indiana tracks as partners of CANTER," King says. "We have gotten a very good response. Initially ... they [trainers and owners] weren't that familiar with the program. Since we were coming down every Saturday, they got to know us." It didn't take long before they wanted to find their horses homes. King says they would tell her, "'His racing career is over and I don't want him to end up somewhere that's not humane.' That's the whole point of CANTER - transitioning them and giving them new careers off the track."
Jon Schuster, Indiana Downs general manager, agrees, saying in an e-mailed statement to NUVO: "Along with CANTER, Indiana Downs also feels that every horse deserves the opportunity to go into retirement as a pet or find a new career. The well-being of each horse is of great concern for both parties and CANTER is a great organization who we wish further success and welcome them to Indiana."
Consider donating your horse to a therapeutic riding organization or equine rescue rather than selling it at auction. Report stolen horses to local and state authorities. Report abuse and neglect to a local animal control office and to law enforcement. Responsible horse ownership could mitigate the number of horses that ultimately wind up at kill auctions.
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