A NY academic opines about horse slaughter

Jill with Dan and Levi. Photo by Sara Tittle

Jill with Dan and Levi. Photo by Sara Tittle

This interview was originally published on July 5, 2012.

Jill Pflugheber, a microscopy specialist with St. Lawrence University in New York, is an academic with horses on the brain, and in her heart.

In an earlier life, she bred Thoroughbreds. Today, she is the proud owner of ex-racehorse Thoroughbred Napoleon Dynamite.

Like many fans of Thoroughbreds and racing, and horse lovers of all levels, she has some strong opinions about horse slaughter.

In this week’s Reader’s Clubhouse, Pflugheber offers her opinion on the state of slaughter, observing some positive signs in the quagmire, and areas where more could be done.

Q: As a former Thoroughbred breeder who owns an off-track Thoroughbred, what is your perspective on the issues surrounding horse slaughter, and the unwanted horse?

I think we can all agree that there are far too many very nice and certainly usable horses being sent to slaughter. Many of these come from the racetrack.  At the root of the issue we have overbreeding, especially of inferior quality horses. And generally, there seems to be a lack of accountability for the horses we create, and profit from.

The Thoroughbred racehorse industry has certainly made great strides forward in the desire to take care of these wonderful animals.

Some racetracks have funds set aside to assist retiring Thoroughbreds. And some even go a step further, putting a program into place that sanctions the connections of horses found going to slaughter. These programs are all individually administered by the racetrack.

Another positive, is a program offered by The Jockey Club, which allows owners to contribute money at the time of foal registration, towards the welfare of that horse.

This is all super, but I think we can’t stop here.  There should be uniform, universal sanctions, centrally administered for consistency’s sake, and with transparency.

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

I think breeders should be required to, in some way, provide for the retirement of those horses they brought into the world.  Perhaps that requirement would also weed out those who can’t afford to provide for the horse after it’s racing days are over, and might reduce the overbreeding that is part of the cause of so many horses without places to go. These funds, too, should be centrally and transparently administered.

Back when I was involved in the breeding industry, there really wasn’t any way to follow the horses you bred, thus making it difficult or impossible to keep “your” horses safe.

Now there are great ways to follow the workouts, entries, and results of any particular horse. It would be a step forward if there was also a way to automatically notify the former connections of a horse that the horse was in danger—being sold through an auction the “kill buyers” frequent.

And while lip tattoos are the standard, maybe microchipping should be required, as well. Lip tattoos can be difficult to read—although flipping a lip to see a tattoo is a quick way to identify a horse that’s been at the track. The microchip could easily be tied to an electronic database in which contact information of all owner, trainer, and breeder information could reside. A quick scan is all it would take to pull up all the information on the horse.

Q: If you could single out a great moment this year for those wishing to end horse slaughter, what would it be? And, what was the biggest challenge?

I think without a doubt the highlight of the year for the anti-slaughter camp is the recent announcement by Viande Richelieu that they would no longer accept Thoroughbreds at their two Canadian slaughter plants.

This was brought about by the high-profile case of former racehorses Canuki and Cactus Café, which were RETURNED from the slaughterhouse pipeline. (See the story in the Daily Racing Form).

Of course, there are still two other plants in Canada as well as Mexican slaughterhouses thatwill take Thoroughbreds, but perhaps this will lessen the desire of the kill buyers to bid on Thoroughbreds, at least in certain areas of the country.

As circumstances change, so, too, the challenges. Much attention is drawn to the horses going through both the Camelot sales and the New Holland sales via the internet.

Since racehorse connections don’t want to be handed sanctions, I am concerned about a possible shift in the way horses are transferred to kill buyers.  Rather than selling them at auction in Camelot and New Holland, I’m concerned that racehorses may be sold directly to the kill buyer, where they don’t get the same public attention.

Or, there may be intermediary people not directly associated with the track who buy and resell these horses, sometimes sending them right back to the “killer” sales.

Q: What is your involvement in the effort to end slaughter?

Jill on the farm. Photo by Sara Tittle

Jill on the farm. Photo by Sara Tittle

My first mission was to save one horse for every horse I had that may have gone to slaughter. So, I was given Napoleon Dynamite, a former racehorse that needed a home. He reminds me of one of the babies I raised, Sally’sfirstchoice. I ran out of pasture, so now my mission is less direct.

However, I cannot help but peruse the weekly images of horses that have run through the sales and need homes, or else they will wind up in a Canadian slaughterhouse.  I can’t personally give them a home, or pay their “bail” money, but I CAN do background research on them, and I CAN share their information. Chalk up several more I at least helped with. I know I could never be on the front lines—I’m glad someone can do it, but that person is not me.

Perhaps the only other thing I can do is have an opinion, and be willing to share it.

Q: The slaughter issue is obviously germane in the horse world, but do you think the average American really cares?

The average American doesn’t see the slaughter issue. I think that when they are faced with the information, they care. We have been raised with the cartoon of “Old Dobbin” headed to the glue factory after finishing out his useful years—not a young, vibrant, and still-useful horse headed for someone’s dinner plate.

Americans think of horses more like cats and dogs than cattle and hogs, and since we don’t eat horsemeat here, the issue is not at the forefront.

And no, the subject of slaughter does not generally come up in the academic areas I work in (science) unless it is a personal story I am recounting to friends.  It’s definitely off the radar screens.

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