Documents released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) contain shocking images of the extreme suffering of horses transported to U.S.-based slaughter plants.

Animals' Angels, a Maryland-based animal protection organization, obtained the photos as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request related to 2005 violations of the Commercial Transport of Equines to Slaughter Act at the former Bel-Tex horse slaughter plant in Kaufman, Texas.

Graphic injuries and mistreatment

The photos were taken by USDA officials charged with monitoring the horses upon arrival at the slaughter plant. While some of the photos depict graphic injuries obviously suffered in transport to slaughter (eyeballs hanging out, bruised and bloodied faces, severely injured or missing legs), others show horses who were clearly mistreated by their owners prior to being purchased for and transported to slaughter.

"For far too long, the availability of horse slaughter has allowed unscrupulous horse owners and breeders to use slaughter auctions as a dumping ground for their 'excess' horses. It is time for the horse industry to take responsibility for its horses (for their entire lives) instead of hiding behind a foreign-owned industry that preys on our companion animals," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

In its 1996 Farm Bill, Congress gave the USDA authority to regulate the transport of horses to U.S.-based, foreign-owned slaughter plants. The final rule, which was not published until 2001, included a phase-out of the use of double-decker trailers to transport horses directly to slaughter.

However, a loophole in the law allows horses to be transported to any other destination, such as auctions, feed lots or intermediary points, on these cramped, dangerous trailers, meant for shorter neck species like cattle and pigs. When forced to travel on these trailers, horses cannot balance properly, causing them to suffer serious injuries and sometimes death before arriving at the slaughter plant. Many of the USDA photos depict injuries typical of horses forced to travel on double-decker trailers—severe head injuries, gaping hindquarter wounds and leg injuries.

Transportation horrors

In recent years, there have been a number of horrific accidents in which top-heavy, double-decker trailers carrying horses have flipped over en route to slaughter plants and feed lots. In 2007, a trailer carrying more than 50 young Belgian draft horses overturned on an Illinois highway, killing 17 of the horses and severely injuring dozens more. The surviving horses were turned over to a local horse rescue, which rehabilitated them and adopted them out to loving homes.

Horses transported to slaughter endure many hours, even days, in the crowded confines of trailers without food, water or rest. Lack of segregation of more dominant, young, old or injured horses makes fighting, injury and even death a frequent occurrence on slaughter-bound trailers.

In 2007, the last three U.S. horse slaughter plants closed as a result of legislation and legal action in the states where the plants operated (Illinois and Texas). Even when there were operational plants in the United States, horses were being transported by the thousands across our borders to plants in Mexico and Canada.