The United States exports more than $26 million worth of horse meat to Europe and Asia, some of it from Kansas.
Yet the industry has seen its numbers dwindle from around 300,000 horse slaughters a decade ago to between 65,000 and 95,000 this year.
Some want that number to be zero and have support from the U.S. House, which voted 263-146 in September to prohibit the sale and transportation of horse meat for consumption.
The Virgie S. Arden American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act is still an issue in the Senate, which is back at work this week.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., opposes the slaughter ban and believes the bill won't make it out of committee before the new Senate takes over in 2007, said spokeswoman Sarah Little.
Though supporters aren't giving up on the bill - especially in light of the bipartisan support it took to win House approval in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress - a Democratic majority with new slaughter opponents such as Missouri Sen.-elect Claire McCaskill in the 110th Congress bodes better.
"With a Democratic leadership, we've got a very good chance," said Chris Heyde, deputy legislative director of Society for Animal Protective Legislation in Washington, D.C., which supports the ban. "If we have to come back, I think there's a very good chance."
In the House, all three Kansas Republicans voted against the bill, including outgoing 2nd District Rep. Jim Ryun.
Only 3rd District Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat who represents Johnson County and parts of Lawrence, voted in favor of the bill and will support its reintroduction if need be when the new Congress convenes next month, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Black.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., could not be reached for comment.
Economics of the issue
With some 1 percent of horses slaughtered in 2006 out of a 9.2 million horse population nationwide, including about 100,000 in Kansas, some point to what they consider a practical reality of using unwanted horses that range from blind, lame or old to healthier animals no longer used in horse racing or recreational riding.
"We've got to do something with cull horses," said Ted Schroeder, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University whose specialty is livestock marketing. "If you've got a horse that's being removed from recreational or commercial activities, you have two options: You can euthanize or destroy it. Or you've got to somehow turn it into another product.
"We're taking a product that is otherwise costly to dispose of and processing it into a food that has a value in the export market."
If horses are to be put down with chemical euthanasia instead of slaughtered, part of the concern is the cost.
The cost for chemical euthanasia and burial can range from $200 to $450. Cremations can cost $1,000.
It costs about $2,400 annually to care for a horse, said DeeVon Bailey, professor in the economics department at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. This compares with the average $350 profit a horse brought at sale in 2004 specifically for slaughter, Bailey said.
"You have to look at the alternatives and how they're going to be cared for or put down," said Bailey, author of "The Unintended Consequences of a Ban of the Humane Slaughter (Processing) of Horses in the United States" for the Animal Welfare Council in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Vera Gannaway, owner of about 30 horses - two of which were rescued from slaughter - at Stepping Stone Ranch outside Baldwin City, broke down the cost to own a horse as $325 a month for food and board, $15 for worm shots every other month, $35 for trimming, with another $50 to $150 for shoes, $200 for annual shots and $100 for dental, or more than $4,000 annually.
Charles Musick, 61, owner of a feedlot on U.S. Highway 56, part of his 600 acres in Overbrook, grew up in a family that sold horses - draft horses, standard breed, quarter and paint - for riding, labor and slaughter - some healthy, some not.
He blames ban supporters for driving down all horse prices by several hundred dollars per head during the last couple years.
"These people just don't have a clue what they're doing on this horse deal. They don't have a clue to what the real horse business is," Musick said.
But opponents of slaughter - a term used by people on both sides of the issue - look as much if not more to the cruelty of the process while claiming that good, healthy horses are going to slaughter despite what the public thinks.
"There's a misconception about the types of horses that go to the plant. Many people believe that it's the old, sick, crippled horses, and that's simply not true. They're beautiful, healthy horses that are not sick. They're wanted." said Julie Carramante, investigator in Texas for Habitat for Horses, a Houston-based nonprofit organization that watches for abuse and neglect of horses.
"There's just no way you can slaughter a horse humanely," said Carramante, who thinks that culturally the United States is better suited for horses as pets rather than food.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which objects to the killing of any animal, is especially critical of horse slaughter, which it claims cruelly subjects horses to cross-country truck rides to several processing plants limited to Texas and Illinois.
"Horse slaughter does bring some special cruelties that are worth noting," said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of Norfolk, Va.-based PETA.
Opponents of slaughter claim part of what differentiates a horse from other slaughter animals, such as cattle and pigs, is the horse's sensibilities. They say horses are more aware of their impending death as they come off crowded trucks down a shoot where a captive-bolt gun, like those used for cattle, drives a steel bolt into the horse's brain and kills it.
But some experts disagree and claim horses today are treated ethically in the slaughter industry in general.
"The slaughtering itself is done humanely. I know that it's a concern of horse lovers," said professor Bailey of Utah State University."
What to do with them?
If horse slaughter is prohibited, both sides disagree about how an additional 90,000 horses will be absorbed into the 9.2 million total nationwide.
California, which banned horse sale for slaughter in the early 1990s, hasn't seen an increase in neglected horses, said Carolyn Stull, animal welfare specialist for the school of veterinary medicine at University of California-Davis.
So what will happen nationwide?
"That's the big question. Will their welfare be improved?" said Stull, who added that California is difficult to use as a model because slaughter horses simply can be shipped to other states and sold where there is no ban.
It's the message the newly created Unwanted Horse Coalition, part of the American Horse Council in Washington, D.C., is trying to send by developing a Web site where horse owners can search their best options other than slaughter.
"We want everyone to be aware of the responsibility," said Katy Carter, coordinator for the coalition, which takes no position on the horse slaughter bills. "It's a lifelong commitment. As long as you've got that horse, you've got to take care of it."
But the Amarillo, Texas-based American Quarter Horse Association, which is part of the coalition, does not support either House or Senate prohibition proposals because alternatives such as adoption are impractical and costly to taxpayers and retirement facilities wouldn't be able to handle the projected overflow.
But proponents of the legislation claim slaughter numbers have been reduced by two-thirds in the last decade, with the difference being absorbed without additional abuses.
"We've seen it go from 300,000 to 90,000," said Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros in Lantry, S.D. "And if we can do that, we can do 90,000."