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Wild horses rounded up by Bureau of Land Management contractors. Photo courtesy Scott Wilson.

A bill originally intended to ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption passed narrowly out of a Colorado Senate panel after it was watered down to attempt to regulate the transportation of horses headed to slaughter.

Originally, Senate Bill 38 would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption in Colorado. The last slaughterhouse for horses in the United States, in Texas, was shuttered in 2007. 

As introduced, the bill from Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont, would establish the crime of equine slaughter. In addition, notice of the law would be posted at livestock auctions and with bills of sales.

Federal law already bans the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States.

It isn't that equine slaughter for human consumption doesn't happen anywhere. Horses are routinely exported to Mexico and Canada for slaughter and sale to Europe and Japan, where horsemeat is considered a delicacy. One estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 57,000 horses were transported from the United States to Mexico and Canada for consumption purposes in 2019. 

There have also been concerns that horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado are being sold to those who send them off to slaughter in other countries.

An animal rights group identified a Colorado trader and "kill buyer who sells horses online," saying when he doesn't get the prices he wants, he ships them off to slaughter. Sixteen horses from a recent BLM roundup ended up at the person's property last year, the group said.

Horse meat is not considered safe for humans by animal rights advocates, who point to disease and veterinary medicines that are not safe for human consumption.

The bill drew the support of animal rights activists and horse rescue organizations. 

Valentine Lovato, a child who adopted a pony she named Marilyn Monroe from a horse rescue in 2021, told the committee her pony was headed to a Mexican slaughterhouse. She has since ridden the horse in competition, winning five blue ribbons.

"She loves me and we've given her a great home," she said. 

Renee Faulkner said the bill as introduced would put criminals on alert, identifying those who are buying BLM mustangs for slaughter. The original bill sought to criminalize importing or exporting horse meat if a person knew or should have reasonably known the meat would be used for human consumption.

"If we had disclosure, create awareness for the public, this may be curtailed," she said. 

But the bill as introduced addressed a problem that doesn't actually exist in Colorado, meaning the sponsor had to shift gears.

Jaquez Lewis instead offered a rewrite of the bill known as a "strike below" amendment to require those transporting horses to slaughter do so "humanely."

Rebekah Keat, who runs the horse rescue that brought Lovato and Marilyn Monroe together, said she regularly bids against someone at horse auctions, adding that 90% of the horses they rescue are healthy and young, not sick or old. She also said about 79% of horses are injured in transport on the way to slaughter. 

While Jaquez Lewis and others advocated against equine slaughter, opponents of the bill noted equine slaughter is a solution for elderly horses or those that have outlived their usefulness. Even Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University expert on animal science, advocates for horse slaughter, if it can be done humanely in a well designed facility with good management. 

Those opposed to the bill included Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association and Colorado Woolgrowers Association. 

Landon Gates, representing the two latter groups, said they were shocked by the original version of SB 38, which was not what Jaquez Lewis told them last summer it would address. He said they much prefer the strike-below proposal, which is what they thought she was going to introduce.

"When you remove an option of disposing of a horse that has reached the end of its useful life, you end up with fewer options," Gates said.

Horse sanctuaries are great, and a wonderful place for a horse to live out its life, he added, but also pointed out a horse sanctuary was raided last October because the animals were being neglected. It's not always the best answer, he said.

Scott Dorenkamp, with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, said the bill is duplicative of existing prohibitions on horse processing, and would regulate interstate commerce. As distasteful as it might sound, horse slaughter is an option when all others have run out, he indicated. 

"This is a solution in search of a problem," said Wes Skiles of the Colorado Livestock Association. 

"We can put a stop to this cruelty and suffering" at the hands of kill buyers, Jaquez Lewis told the committee. 

Despite the rewrite, the bill still drew concerns from Ag Chair Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, who worked with Jaquez Lewis and stakeholders from the ag industry to narrow the bill's scope back to the transportation of horses. But he also indicated the amendment, which now becomes the bill, wouldn't be enforceable because it's trying to "police behavior" that doesn't happen in Colorado, and that he expects more changes.

In the end, however, Roberts was one of the four "yes" votes to move the bill on. 

The committee approved the rewritten bill on a 4-3 vote and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

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