HERE’S WHAT YOU PROBABLY don’t want to take home from a horse auction. A horse with a big swollen knee or a ringbone on the front of the foot or any kind of enlargement of the ankle. A horse with pointy little pin ears poking up from his head or a horse with giant ears. A horse with beady eyes and what they call a Roman nose. A blind horse. A mean horse. An old worn-out bucking horse. A horse with a indentation, often hidden under the saddle blanket, that would mean it had knocked a cap off its hip bone, maybe by sideswiping a trailer door. A horse that’s loose in the back end and swings its hips from side to side (horse people will sometimes refer to this as “doing the Mae West”). What you do want, at the end of the night, is a horse that’s broke and gentle and sound.
So I learned from Jim Bob Thomas, an old trader I met in October at an auction in Stephenville, eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth. The town is deep in horse country. Entering freshmen at Tarleton State University arrive on campus towing horse trailers; rising hay prices cause the kind of concern that rising gas prices do elsewhere; realtors’ listings maintain a separate category for horse properties; and on the first Friday of every month, one of the state’s largest regular horse auctions takes place at a barn north of town. Roughly three hundred horses pass through the Stephenville horse auction each month: ranch horses, cutting horses, roping horses, brood mares, broncs, ex-racehorses, old ponies. Many of them end up back in somebody’s pasture, but about 20 percent go to slaughter plants to be butchered. The meat is then flown to other countries to be eaten by humans or shipped to domestic zoos (as well as to Siegfried and Roy) to be eaten by lions and tigers, while the remaining parts of the carcass are dispatched to the makers of paintbrushes, violin bows, and leather shoes.
Last year the country’s three operating horse slaughter plants—two in Texas and one in Illinois—put more than 90,000 horses to death. I’d gone to Stephenville to learn what I could about how horses wind up at “the killers,” as these packinghouses are sometimes called. (Traders who sell to the plants are in turn known as “killer buyers.”) Prior to making the trip I’d been warned by anti-slaughter activists to watch my step if I went to a horse auction. “Try not to look like a reporter at all,” I was told. “They get very violent when they think the killer buyers are getting exposed.” Some of these killer buyers, they added, were constantly in and out of jail. “A lot of them are the bottom-of-the-barrel type.”
Yet Jim Bob Thomas was more than willing to talk to me. (He also assured me he’d never been in jail.) Slight and spry, he wore starched Wranglers and ostrich boots, and his eyes were alert below the brim of a brand-new Western hat. His speech was salted with certain anachronistic turns of phrase; he first learned about the horse business, he told me, working at the Fort Worth Stockyards for “a little bitty Jew man ’bout five foot two who had a livery stable.” He’d started delivering horses to the packers in the sixties, after a plant opened in Palestine, and in time he was taking two trailerloads a week to a slaughterhouse in North Platte, Nebraska. Though he’d retired from the killer buyer business after that plant closed and was now selling cars in Fort Worth, he still came out to Stephenville every month to help the owner, Rusty Addison, run the sale. For that matter, he planned to buy some horses later that night for a few of his contacts in other states.
“There’s not a human being on earth that loves horses more than me,” he said. “I can be so attached to a horse I can’t ever sell it, but then on the other hand, when I see a horse that’s crippled, I don’t bat an eye hauling him to the plant.” If Thomas sounded a little defiant, that was to be expected. Only a month earlier, the House of Representatives had approved a bill that would effectively shut down U.S. horse slaughter plants, by making it illegal to ship, receive, own, buy, sell, or donate a horse intended to be slaughtered for human consumption “and for other purposes.” The legislation, known as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, attracted passionate support from more than two hundred co-sponsors, as well as from Bo Derek, Willie Nelson, T. Boone Pickens, Sir Paul McCartney, Kid Rock, and other luminaries. Advocates argued that horses helped us win the West, that they’re icons, not food. “They are as close to human as any animal you can get,” proclaimed John Spratt, a Democrat from South Carolina.
Opponents of the bill were roused to equally bombastic heights, predicting that a ban on horse slaughter would mark the first step of an insidious program to regulate all household pets, including “fish in the aquarium.” The legislation was denounced as “an outright attack at animal agriculture” that had been “based on emotion.” Without the packinghouses, charged Republican Steve King, of Iowa , in just ten years we’d have a million surplus horses on our hands, animals that would be “eating our cellulose and costing us ethanol.” Moreover (though this seems like double counting), their carcasses would soon be piling up, wreaking “untold disastrous effects on the ecosystem.”
Both the bill’s supporters and its opponents represented themselves as guardians of the horses’ best interests, but those in favor spoke of horses as companions, while those opposed spoke of them more often as property and portrayed horse slaughter as a property rights issue. “We should love our horses,” said Congressman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican whose district includes the town of Kaufman, where one of the Texas slaughter plants is