Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Not Once in Memory Did the Cowboy Eat His Horse."

The nations total number of horse slaughtering plants has dropped from three to one as a federal appeals court ruled last Friday that horse slaughtering is illegal in Texas. After the court's ruling the only horse slaughtering plant remaining is in DeKalb, Illinois.

In his ruling, Judge Fortunato Benavides of the 5th circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans wrote, "The lone cowboy riding his horse on a Texas trail is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse." According to the AP, the court's decision "overturns a lower federal district court's ruling last year on a 1949 Texas law that banned horse slaughter for the purpose of selling the meat for food."

There are two aspects here that stand out for me.

One, that there are actually operational horse slaughtering plants up and running in 2007.

Two, the way Benavides' decision cites popular culture as part of his rationale. I'm sure the actual decision is based on law and not movies, but it's interesting to me that he chooses not actual history to cite, but cinematic history. There's something about the repeated moving imagery of a cowboy on a horse that speaks to Benavides more than any actual history of the west apparently has; it's not that cowboys rode horses as much as it is that cowboys rode horses in movies.

And didn't eat them. Though, to be fair, they did, at times, punch them.

That many westerns are fabrications is nothing new, of course, but if I wasn't certain Benavides was basing his decision of law and not movie memory (which seems to be the case given that the 5th Circuit overturned a law by a lower court that overturned the 1949 law that's actually on the books) it would make me wonder what directors like John Ford (who was often pretty adamant that depictions of the "wild west" in his movies were John Ford's West and not Actual History West), Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone would think about their fictional films influencing 21st century law.

The people of Texas appear pleased with the court's ruling. Mayor of Kaufman, Texas Paula Bacon told the AP: "This business has not been a positive for our community at all. To have state law finally enforced and to have this business close its doors for good is fantastic news."

The AP reports that 88,000 horses are slaughtered each year in the U.S. and that "horse meat is not marketed as table fare in the United States, but the slaughter plants process hundreds of horses each week and ship the meat overseas, where horse flesh is considered a delicacy in Europe, Japan and other places." All three U.S. plants, ironically or not, are foreign-owned, and the U.S. Congress has a bill pending to close all three plants.

Here's a link to the Society for Animal Protective Legislation website where they discuss the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (AHSPA).

And here's a link to the House of Representatives version of the AHSPA bill, HR 503.


Tommbert said...

How right you are to recognize the strangeness of using the cowboy as a touchstone for the horse slaughter legislation. I wonder how much of it is regional identification (i.e. Texas/plains ranching) and how much is an appeal to the alleged national identity of the cowboy. Makes me think of all those Olymipc parades with the U.S. in ten-gallon hats. Though I suppose they have a bigger stake in making the reasons obvious to the people of Texas, I would be willing to guess that lawmakers felt the need to appeal to the nation as well. Besides, Texas is part of the U.S., too (yeah, yeah, begrudgingly, history tells us).

At the same time an equally compelling case could be tracked through settler parties and the like, showing how horse consumption (and to a much lesser degree, human consumption) was a last resort. Because horse ends up just before human on the list of things you would want to eat, there's a certain logic there, too, as if they are more important by association. I recall from Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven that wagon parties were more likely to eat their oxen before their horses. Don't know if that is because of the amount of food an ox eats is larger than a horse, because there is a friendlier association with horses, or whatever else might be the case.

thevegster said...

I think they were talking about the pop culture references instead of the historical ones because that is what is accessible to people. It is a PR campaign. There is less attention paid to "factual" representations and more to one's appearance and how one will be seen by the masses (read: consumers). The only ones who may suffer significantly from the closure are the owners of and workers in the plant. On the other hand, Texas has no shortage of other slaughtering jobs and the residents of the town seem happy (at least through the mayor) to see such an unpalatable plant close. They are putting on a show that everyone in this value system has to praise if they think it's weird to eat horse. It reminds me of the State of the Union--everyone had to clap when Bush mentions supporting the troops regardless of the array of views on the war itself. Here you have to applaud what seems like the moral choice even if it means you might lose your job.

I have to say as a vegan (for ethical reasons) I am happy anytime fewer animals will be killed. I don't much see a reason to kill any animal for food and find no moral distinction between eating a horse and eating a cow. But I'll take what I can get if it gets the job done. The fact that people are bombarded with friendly pop culture representations of horses makes people believe that horses have some right not to be eaten that cows don't have. It just further demonstrates pop culture's grip on consumers. At least, though, it saves the horses. In my mind the clear answer is if you wouldn't eat a horse (or any other animal for whatever reason) then you shouldn't eat any animals at all. Why the arbitrary distinction? The answer you point out is the right one in the gloss of pop culture.

Tommbert said...

For sure. Seems creepy to me that the myth of the cowboy is controlling domestic businesses...

Maybe if Ford can call their new truck the Trusty Steed they can get out of their problems.

trout said...

Too bad cowboys didn't see fit to ride cows and pigs and pet chickens while they were at it.

Planet Killer said...

I think what's important to keep in mind is that the federal appeals judge was upholding a law already in existence. While he may have reached to a pop culture reference to help get his decision across, Texas has had this law on the books since 1949. So while the myth of the west was certainly active by 1949, I'd be interested in doing more research in how and why that law was enacted to see just how much of a factor pop culture had in the origins of that law.

I don't think a decision to eat one animal and not another is necessarily arbitrary. It might not be the path of reason Person A might choose, but if Person B says, "I'm going to eat a cow and not a horse because one tastes good" I don't see that as arbitrary. If someone says "I'm going to eat a cow and not a horse because I have a stronger personal relationship with horses" I don't see that as arbitrary, either. There is a logic at work there. Maybe not a logic based on morals or ethics, but logic nonetheless.

The automatic equation of all animals is one of the reasons that much of the cattle and sheep industry opposes a ban on horse slaughtering, citing the old "slippery slope" concept - banning horse slaughtering makes it easier to ban cattle slaughtering and so on.

What's interesting to me about this is that both extremes of this issue (those who want slaughtering legal and those who want all slaughtering banned) rely on the same cornerstone in their argument - that all animals are more or less equal - yet come to completely different conclusions. One is based on ethics and another on business, so the first is likely to stay consistent while the second might be more whimsical, but in terms of making this argument in this moment both sides rely on "animal equality" to come to their conclusion.

Tommbert said...

Too true, if only because at the bottom of it is the lurking reminder that humans aren't animals somehow. I always appreciate that the "humans are animals too" line is in reach normally as an argument from convenience, useful when it's useful, ignored when it's not. This seems to be one of those cases where if you invoke animal equality, as you say, to lump humans in there would end up pointing to a ban in toto, a situation that has some pretty serious implications both ethically and economically.

Tommbert said...

Also, trout, did you mean that they should have only ridden pet chickens, or that they should pet chickens like lap cats?

I can see it now, the lone cowboy on the distant horizon, atop Bruno his rugged Chester White swine, his pullet Edgar trotting behind them as they seek new adventures and right the wrongs of the West. Delightful. Don't know if I could take the Marlboro Man as seriously.

Tommbert said...

And before anyone gets huffy, I know pullets are female. I just liked the name Edgar a lot. Very noble.

trout said...

Though my grammar left the issue open to interpretation, I found it hard to conceive of a cowboy actually riding a chicken--opting for cowboys petting them like kitty cats instead.

And rather than making decisions about what animals to eat based upon personal relationships or taste, it seems to me that perhaps most people merely conform to cultural norms--beef, pork, chicken, fish in America for the most part--whose reasons or genesis have long since been disregarded. I know I did. All of a year ago, if a restaurant had served horse--or dog or whatever--and it was culturally acceptable, I would have eaten it. Perhaps.

thevegster said...

As for the "arbitrary distinction" part, better phrasing could have been selected, but I contend that these people have never eaten a horse so taste can be ruled out completely. As for a personal relationship with a horse I suspect, even in Texas, these people would still be a minority. I know that planet killer was not arguing about morals, however I think that man's "friend" the horse is little excuse for meat eaters. I stand by my discussion of the moral irrelevance of not eating horses because of Mr. Ed or even how much you like your "friend" horse. Please note that I am not saying you should eat your "friend" horse if you eat meat, just that because you like him/her does not mean that you shouldn't eat any horses but cows are ok to eat. I hate to get out the meat eaters' least favorite term here but it is speciesist to eat meat but not horses for these reasons (except taste at least at the point you would eat any animal but have taste preferences between them). Aren't people supposed to start with morals and then worry about taste afterward? I liked tommbert's point about the "humans are animals too" line. It's sad that this basic and seemingly obvious concept isn't readily accessible people. If it were, what a different world it would be.

Planet Killer said...

Cultural norms certainly set the American menu because grocery stores aren't going to suddenly stockpile food there's no history of selling, but at the point of sale it's a combination of factors: availability, doctrine, taste, purpose, health, etc.

Cultural norms change, too, for a variety of reasons. There have been enough people over the past 10-15 years that have decided they'd rather eat whole wheat bread than white, and now grocery stores reflect that. That's a health reason, but there's no reason taste couldn't serve as a catalyst to enact cultural normalcy.

"Aren't people supposed to start with morals and then worry about taste afterward?"

I don't think it's a start/end question. The idea that people should start with morals first and then progress outward sounds too much like church to me. Conversely, starting with taste first is perhaps too hedonistic. Rather, I think it's a combination of a whole range of issues that people take into account when deciding what to eat (or do anything for that matter). For some people taste is going to be a dominant reason, for others it will be morals.

On a related note of animal eating, there was a doc on the other week showing a group of orca attacking a whale and her calf. They eventually killed the calf then literally ate only the calf's lower jaw, leaving the remainder of the whale to drop to the ocean floor. Other fish would eventually strip it down to skeletal level at the floor, but the actions of the orca are just as wasteful as any individual human act. (I don't mean this as a springboard to a larger point, just as an example that we're not the only wasteful species on the planet. It doesn't excuse our own wastefulness, in other words.)

Tommbert said...

Shameless plug here for the ASLE list-serv (you can get on it at There was an interesting string on wasteful animals, in this case wolves, where one case was noted a group of imprecise number killed some 70 sheep and ate naught.

Not going to discuss, just an interesting piece of info. Doesn't seem to be enough evidence for us to be wasteful either, though.