Dr. Jerry Black gives the Straight Talk about what the promotion of the animal rights agenda means to the performance horse business.
For the last few years, Quarter Horse News has consistently addressed the subjects of classification of horses as livestock, the ongoing debate about how to address the problem of unwanted horses and the ever-contentious issue of horse slaughter. Now, Dr. Jerry Black, an expert from inside the performance horse industry has agreed to go on the record about what he views as a real threat to this business.
The reclassification of horses could dramatically impact the performance horse industry, and Dr. Jerry Black sees this as the natural progression now that animal rights groups have gained a foothold thanks to the horse slaughter issue and the overpopulation of equines in the United States.
Black, 63, is a senior partner of Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale, Calif., and he is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. He and his wife, Melinda, operate a horse operation and stallion station in California, and Black is a current NCHA Executive Committee member. He joined the NCHA in 1981 and has served on the board of directors since 1994, plus he served four terms as PCCHA president. Black is also a member of the AQHA Public Policy Committee and is a trustee of the American Horse Council that oversees the Unwanted Horse Coalition.
QHN: Do you believe that horses could be reclassified as companion animals?
Black: I think the true answer to that is that we don't know at this point in time. There is a certain segment of our population that doesn't understand the horse industry. Without adequate knowledge of the industry, that is the way they view the horse today, as a companion. A horse is a tradition of the West. But I think they see him as a noble beast that is not part of the agricultural community. I think there is danger in that. Most good horse people don't understand or don't truly appreciate the dynamics of what are behind the agendas of the animal rights groups.
QHN: You maintain the Humane Society of the United States is especially worrisome when it comes to what is in the best interest of the performance horse industry. Why?
Black: I believe the HSUS is really an advocacy group for animal rights. Certainly, they take on welfare issues, but I think philosophically they are an animal rights organization.
QHN: Isn't that a good thing?
Black: What the average person doesn't realize is that there is no connection between the HSUS and your local humane societies that truly do welfare for your community. Those people are hands-on welfare people in regard to the care and nurturing of unwanted animals. The HSUS doesn't fund any of that. They don't do anything at a hands-on level. They're looking at the advocacy of the rights of animals. Most people don't understand that, and I don't think they understand it necessarily when they contribute to these organizations. The growth of the HSUS in the last several years has been just phenomenal. They have done a wonderful job of publicizing their cause to everyone who loves animals. They've got good leadership and they have found some causes that have real appeal to a significant number of our population.
QHN: How does the HSUS's cause tie into the horse business?
Black: There are many, many people who believe the true agenda of the HSUS and like-minded organizations is the elimination of horses for entertainment purposes, period. I don't have the knowledge that that's been stated in their past agendas. But I do know that with the advent of the horse processing issue, the HSUS has made a tremendous gain in the horse industry as an advocacy group.That really concerns me. I've seen how they work and I've seen what they write and I know that much of it is not true. For me, personally, that's a significant concern.
QHN: How exactly has horse processing allowed the HSUS to gain entry in our industry?
Black: We've got a significant problem in the United States, as far as unwanted horses. We have produced a growth in our horse industry that has been pretty steady for several years. Through this growth there are a certain number of horses that are lame, are not trainable or they have other issues. Those horses become unwanted. That number is high.
Of course, the processing issue, or slaughter issue, if you will, speaks to the fact that the American public is not eating horsemeat and therefore doesn't understand why horses should be processed or even classified as livestock. What the HSUS has advocated to the American public is that horse slaughter is an inhumane process, that it's not done properly, that it's not regulated property. That is not true. The industry and the department of agriculture have worked for years to make sure it is a humane process.
They have really concentrated on the captive bolt, and they've told a lot of lies. Very, very professional, ethical people within the veterinary profession have studied that, they've looked at how it's used, they've been to the slaughter plants and made sure that it's done professionally, ethically and, most of all, humanely. And still, these advocacy groups insist that the captive bolt is inhumane, despite documented facts to the contrary. What gets to the average Joe American is the thought that these great animals are not treated humanely and they are not killed instantaneously. That's just not true.
QHN: Are you saying animal rights groups are deliberately misleading the public?
Black: There is no middle ground with these people. I've been in rooms with them and I've listened to their arguments. There is no rational reasoning when you're visiting with them. They're dedicated to their purpose and they're zealots when it comes to their ideals.
I'm really afraid that as this momentum is growing in the U.S., that it's going to tip the scale toward horses being considered a unique companion animal versus being part of the U.S. livestock and agriculture community.
QHN: So how does that affect the "average Joe" cutter, reiner or reined cow horseman?
Black: Animal rights groups, and the HSUS in particular, have gotten this tremendous foothold in the industry. They've created a debate that serves their purpose royally. The horse slaughter issue has given them a foothold in the horse industry and put the horse industry in the eye of the American public.
They've already targeted racing. I'm assuming that performance horse sports, such as cutting, where there is a significant amount of money involved in the purse, are just flying below the radar screen, in terms of their interest. I just fear that we're going to be targeted soon.
QHN: What would that mean to our business?
Black: For all of us who are producers, we could lose the tax incentives regarding the raising of livestock, including the way we're able to depreciate them.
You get other incentives on horses as being part of the agriculture community. Horses are also receiving emergency funding through he USDA for disaster relief because they're considered part of the agriculture community. A significant portion of our funding for research comes through the USDA and our regulatory health agencies operate under the agricultural umbrella. In the history of the United States, we've been tied to agriculture as part of the whole livestock picture, of livestock production.
QHN: What has been the reaction of the performance horse organizations to this possibility?
Black: The AQHA has been proactive because of the number of members in their organization. The AQHA realizes that it's very detrimental to what are basically their key programs, that being their breed registry and the general growth of the American Quarter Horse. Those programs are what have made the AQHA so successful. I think the AQHA realizes that the HSUS is a threat to the horse industry.
But I think the performance horse organizations have paid little attention to it.
QHN: What are you, as an NCHA Executive Committee member, doing to this end?
Black: We want our horses to be treated humanely. I think most owners want their horses to be treated humanely. But at what point in time do we want people outside of our industry telling us what is humane and what is not humane? I think we need to be sure we've got our act pretty clean."
For example, the amount of warm-up exercise that our horses get prior to competition is that questionable when looked at by an outside audience? Are our training methods questionable? Those and others are questions we need to ask ourselves.
QHN: How about the off-label use of human and animal calming drugs in performance horses?
Black: I can tell you that the NCHA Executive Committee is pretty proactive about this. I serve on the NCHA Horse Welfare Taskforce and I think they [NCHA Executive Committee] would favor a recommendation from this task force for establishing medication controls starting with the Triple Crown events. I think that's going to happen in the near future.
QHN: There are many people out there who believe that horse slaughter is no way tied into the well-being of the performance horse business. Do they have a point?
Black: That isn't totally true. We've always had a base price for our commodity as livestock. We've lost that completely now. I think if we're producing horses for the high-end performance world, there's always a trickledown effect. Not all of these horses are performers. That doesn't mean that our good cutting horses that don't make the grade go to slaughter, because I think very few of them do.
But as you move horses down the ladder, as they become lame or have other problems, at some point in time some horses become unwanted. They have a lot of chances to have other careers but at some point in time there is a group of them that become unwanted. I think it has an effect on the entire horse industry. We saw economic effects of losing slaughter on the horse industry that preceded the recession.
QHN: You said one method of animal rights groups is to start at the local level with their agendas. Please explain.
Black: Particularly in some of the more liberal states, there are some initiatives in counties to either make horses companion animals or require the licensing of horses, like dogs and cats. There are even some philosophies that animals have individual rights and that you, as an owner of an animal, are basically just a steward for that animal. And if that's the case, you might not even be able to make the decision of euthanasia because that animal has the right to live. Those arguments are scary to me.
QHN: Don't you really think that is a little far out, likely to never happen here in the United States?
Black: I agree totally that it's far out, and I certainly hope it won't happen. But again, I think it all starts back at the issues of slaughter and unwanted horses.
QHN: What do you mean?
Black: Now that there are no means of processing horses in the United States, the number of horses being exported to Canada and Mexico has risen dramatically. [From 2007 to 2008, according to USDA figures for non-breeding horses, 66 percent more to Canada and 52 percent more to Mexico.]
What most people don't understand is that they legally cross the border as slaughter animals and are tightly controlled by not only the USDA but also by the federal agencies in those countries. Last year, two veterinarians and past presidents of the AAEP Dr. Tom Lenz and Dr. Doug Corey went to Mexico and inspected the horse processing plants there. They found them to be very, very well managed and treating the horses humanely.
Horses from the United States that go to Mexico are inspected here by USDA officials then they are inspected by Mexican veterinarians. Then, the trailers are closed and sealed until they arrive at the plant. They're under all of the regulations of the European Union. We have spent a lot of time tracking that whole process and making sure that we can say that is a humane process.
The Canadian processes have always been humane but they're tightening their regulations to make sure that it conforms to what the current regulations for the United States require.
QHN: But there are those horrible videos of horses being slaughtered in Mexico.
Black: The video may be very real, but those are substandard processing plants and those are not where the American horses go. Those are local border plants where they slaughter horses for local consumption.
QHN: There are some reports stating the unwanted horse problem is being exaggerated in an effort to falsely legitimize the return of legalized horse slaughter in the United States.
Black: Yeah, I've seen that, too. But we have reports of abandoned, neglected and unwanted horses all the time, and the Unwanted Horse Coalition is getting more reports regularly. Out here in the West, the number of horses that are being released on public lands because there's no avenue for the bottom end is growing exponentially.
QHN: That might be true, but what about the stallion owner who breeds 200-300 mares a year? Doesn't he also share in the responsibility of breeding too many horses?
Black: I guess I would argue that if a stallion is breeding 200 mares, there's some stallion out there that's not breeding as many. It's really the mare owners' responsibility. The number of mares is not because some stallions are being bred too much, it's because the mare owners want to breed them. That's where we need to focus.
It's usually the marketplace that dictates how many mares get bred. We have been on this huge rise for well on to 15 years. I think our economy is going to change that. I think we're going to see a big downturn in the numbers in the next five years. The market is currently not able to handle the number of horses we have now.
QHN: Doesn't that, then, support the views of the animal rights groups that horse slaughter is ultimately not necessary?
Black: If we get to the point that we don't have any unwanted horses, I'll be first in line to say "Well then, we don't need horse processing." It's going to take a lot of years before we can say we don't have unwanted horses if ever.
QHN: There are relatively few in the performance horse industry who have the time, resources and political ties to promote their agenda. What can people in the performance horse business do to make sure horses remain classified as livestock?
Black: They need to become informed on the issues. We need to talk amongst ourselves to help protect our industry. Those that have influence with congressmen need to have some practical conversations.
I know what we're up against. It is reported that the HSUS has 10 million members, which averages out to 23,000 members for every one of the 435 House Districts. That's powerful. That's more than twice the members of the National Rifle Association.
Also, it's a good idea to read the articles, the blogs, the comments. You can tell which ones are just following the party line of the Humane Society, basically discounting many of the facts. There are a lot of animal rights people out there and they have the time and passion to make sure their message gets through.
Our message also needs to get through. We have to care. We need to unite ourselves in the horse industry and understand what the downside is of the growth of this type of animal protectionist, animal rights philosophy.