Senior editor Karen Olsson talks about horse slaughter—watching the deed, talking to advocates, and writing about the contentious issue.
texasmonthly.com: As journalists, we often try to keep our personal judgments to ourselves, and at the end of your article, you leave readers to draw their own conclusions. But, after all your research, you must have an opinion about horse slaughter. What is it?
KO: I’ve never worked on a story in which so many people wanted to know my opinion, and I think that’s because it’s a complicated issue. I wouldn’t feel sorry if the Kaufman plant closed—it backs right up on a neighborhood, and I think the local community ought to be able to decide what sort of industry it wants there. When I extrapolate from that I think, “If a majority of Americans are opposed to horse slaughter, shouldn’t we be able to do the same thing, shut down all the plants in our collective backyard?” I lean toward answering yes, but I don’t find the arguments against horse slaughter entirely convincing, and in particular, I think to say that something is bad because it’s “against our culture” is a poor basis for outlawing it.
When I first heard about the issue, I thought, “What’s the difference between horse and cow slaughter?” As I got to know some of the anti-slaughter activists, I found out that they think horse slaughter is essentially more cruel than other types of animal slaughter, but I’m not so sure this is true: a lot of harsh treatment of animals goes on in the name of animal-eating. Ultimately I think the reason a lot of people oppose horse slaughter more than other types of slaughter is that they feel more strongly about horses and have no vested interest in the meat. (Though other people who love horses are pro-slaughter.) And since I’m not a “horse person,” I don’t feel as strongly about it as they do. I feel more strongly about, say, the high rates of worker injury in beef and chicken processing plants. The meatpacking industry in this country treats people very poorly, but we overlook that because we like our meat to be cheap. I suspect that if we didn’t eat beef or chicken but were only exporting it abroad, a lot more people would want to get rid of those plants too.
texasmonthly.com: The way you describe it, horse slaughtering appears to be a male-dominated industry, and the mayor of Kaufman, Paula Bacon, mentions a “good old boy network.” During your investigations, did anyone give you a hard time for being a woman?
KO: No. Everyone I talked to was very gracious. An older gentleman at the Stephenville auction did invite me to sit on his lap, but I declined.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this article?
KO: About six weeks.
texasmonthly.com: Do Bo Derek, Paul McCartney, and Kid Rock have a vested interest in horses? They seem unlikely champions for this cause.
KO: Bo Derek owns horses and is the author of a book called Riding Lessons: Everything That Matters in Life I Learned From Horses. As for McCartney and Rock, I didn’t investigate the nature of their commitment—I don’t know whether they did anything more than add their names to a list.
texasmonthly.com: Did you run into any horse slaughter advocates who really were the “bottom of the barrel” people that anti-slaughter activists warned you about?
KO: No, but Jim Bob Thomas, one of the horse traders in the story, told me that as in the car-selling business, you’ll find both great people and sleazy people in the horse-selling business.
texasmonthly.com: It’s clearly a very contentious issue, but horse slaughter is also pretty far outside the mainstream. How much, if any, media coverage has it received?
KO: There was a big blitz during the first week of September, when the House bill passed: on Nightline, in People magazine, and in a great many newspapers. Aside from that, it’s one of these hardy perennials. Every so often someone does a story on it, and then it fades out of view again. In fact, Texas Monthly ran a short piece about horse slaughter in April 1995.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most unusual thing you saw, heard, or experienced while working on this story?
KO: I’m bad at this sort of “what was the best/worst/most unusual thing” question. I did like going to the horse auction. One of the pleasures of journalism is to be able to step into an entirely foreign world and realize that it’s so close to your own world. The next day I ate breakfast with two of the auction guys in Stephenville, drove back to Austin, and went to a yoga class. It was funny to do both in one day.
texasmonthly.com: After reporting this story, have you become more of a horse expert?
KO: I don’t think so. I learned a few terms, but I couldn’t tell you what a “pastern” is.
texasmonthly.com: Have you tasted horsemeat?
KO: I haven’t, to my knowledge—I’ve eaten sausages in Europe before, which could have had horse in them. It’s not legal to sell horsemeat for human consumption in Texas, and though I bet it would be possible to find the meat through some back channel, I didn’t exert myself in that direction. I stopped eating meat last year, mostly for health reasons, and more or less lost the taste for it, so I don’t really care to sample horsemeat or any other sort of animal flesh.