Every day, often several times a day, Saje Bayes drives the dirt road to the kill lot.
There she sees the horses that will soon be loaded on a truck to Mexico for slaughter.
Saje and her mother, Amy Bayes, save the ones they can.
“New ones show up all the time,” said Saje, 20, a college student. “I need to see them.”
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In the dark, sometimes secretive world of horse slaughter in America — a longtime controversy that some think may soon kick back up with a new president — a natural enmity exists between horse rescue groups and “kill buyers,” the grim term used for those who purchase horses to resell them to Mexican slaughter plants.
Then there’s Saje (pronounced sage) and Amy Bayes, who run Greenwood Stables and Equine Horse Rescue. They have a working relationship with a kill buyer not far from their place near the Whitewater River on the western edge of the Flint Hills in south-central Kansas. The man lets them have dibs on any horse they think they can find a home for.
Last year, that amounted to 700 horses. Sounds like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the number that went to Mexico on the man’s crowded trucks.
“The picking is the worst thing ever,” said Amy Bayes, who works as a librarian in Newton.
She agreed to talk about her relationship with the man only if his name was not used in this story. She worried that animal welfare activists could jeopardize the arrangement she has with him.
“He puts up with a lot from us,” Amy said. “He lets us pull horses he would rather we not. He gives us a chance to find them homes. He’s been nice. We’re not friends by any means, and he knows what side I’m on. We just agree to disagree.”
The last horse slaughter plant in the U.S. closed in 2007. Animal welfare groups saw that as good news, but the shutdown led to horrific trips to Mexico.
Critics say horses typically do not get food or water and must stand in crowded trailers for trips that can last 36 hours. Once at the plant, they are killed, often cruelly. Because of those conditions, some earlier opponents of slaughter wonder whether the practice should return to the U.S., where it could be closely regulated.
But staunch opponents push the Safeguard American Food Exports Act, which has been introduced in both houses of Congress. It not only would end horse slaughter in the U.S. but also ban horse shipments to Mexico.
Slaughter of horses is not illegal in this country. Instead, it has been barred by technicality. Starting in the George W. Bush years and carried on through Barack Obama’s administration, no federal money was appropriated for Department of Agriculture inspections of processing plants.
Without the USDA seal of approval, the meat could not be sold.
But under President Donald Trump, who has showed a clear disdain for financial and business regulations, slaughter opponents worry change could be coming. A Humane Society spokeswoman said recently that she expects a “major battle over horse slaughter” this year.
Missouri state Rep. Warren Love welcomes that fight. The Osceola Republican said the demise of slaughter severely damaged the horse industry. The problem, he said, is that too many people who grew up watching horses on TV view the animals as pets.
“A horse is only a pet if somebody makes it a pet,” Love said. “I’m a rancher and I look at horses just like I do cattle. They’re livestock.”
He hopes for change with Trump.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Love said.
Amy and Saje Bayes don’t buy that horses are simply livestock.
“Horses are what built this country,” Amy said. “Horses are extremely special creatures. They are what was used to settle the West.”
Saje added: “Knights didn’t fight on cows.”
How do you see a horse?
Flashback: March 2012, Mountain Grove, Mo.
A meeting to talk about a Belgian company’s plan to open a horse slaughter plant in that southern Missouri town packed a community center. The big-screen TV showed photos of horse organs and heads piled in the dirt at a Texas slaughter plant. The crowd gasped.
“And people there had horse blood coming up into their toilets!” an attorney leading the opposition bellowed.
They really gasped then. When a company representative tried to schmooze the gathering, someone yelled at him to go to hell and another told him to go back to Belgium. The man lived in a town about 10 miles away.
Horse slaughter is a volatile and emotional topic. The debate often centers on how the animal is viewed.
Cindy Gendron, manager of the national Homes for Horses Coalition, thinks horses are clearly different from cattle.
“Americans don’t eat horse meat,” she said by phone from Virginia.
A good reason for that is the drugs that are injected into horses. But that didn’t stop other countries. Horse meat from Mexico went to Europe, where it is considered a culinary delight. That ended, however, in 2014 when the European Union banned the import after an audit cited inhumane practices at Mexican slaughterhouses.
Now, much of the meat goes to countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Gendron also rejects the assertion that only old and sick horses go to slaughter. Most, she said, are young and healthy. She also knows the political issue is not resolved.
“Will the fight be harder this year? I don’t know,” she said. “It’s possible.”
Trump has not issued any opinion on the subject, but he has called for a repeal of other business regulations. Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who pushed legislation in support of horse slaughter, now serves as an adviser to Trump.
The Missouri Farm Bureau supports slaughter, arguing that the U.S. shutdown resulted in inhumane treatment of sick and unwanted horses. The bureau’s website says:
“We oppose the elimination of funds for federal inspections at processing facilities. Furthermore, we strongly oppose the prosecution of individuals moving, selling, purchasing or transporting horses to be processed within the U.S. or abroad.”
Love, the Missouri lawmaker, says the ban hurts the horse economy; if people don’t have a way to deal with an old horse, they may not buy one in the first place. That cuts into sales of pickups, trailers, feed and saddles.
“Even spurs and a nice Stetson (hat),” he said. “I wear one, and they can cost $500.”
The problem, he said, is that horses are productive for 20 years but live for 30. Slaughter opponents think they should be allowed to die at a natural age after receiving care from a vet. Then you hire a backhoe.
“Well, in the real world that gets pretty expensive,” Love said.
He calls slaughter a form of euthanasia.
Holly Gann, a legislative specialist for the Humane Society, counters that a horse’s fight-or-flight nature makes humane slaughter impossible.
“Horse slaughter is brutal wherever it occurs,” said Gann, adding that polls show most Americans oppose slaughter.
She said that the situation with Amy and Saje Bayes in Kansas is unusual, but that kill buyers in addition to transporting to slaughter often try to peddle horses on Facebook.
“Kill buyers also exploit well-intentioned people who want to save our horses from being brutally slaughtered,” Gann said. “They list horses on Facebook with what is essentially a ransom, threatening to ship the horse to slaughter if the horse is not ‘bailed out’ by the deadline.
“And meanwhile, the kill buyer continues to send horses to slaughter. It’s predatory and egregious. They exploit the bond that Americans have with horses.”
Horses with stories
The Bayes place sits on flat land east of Peabody. Gravel road, red barn, chickens and lots of dogs, including one with three legs.
“They’re rescues, too,” said Amy, who lives there with her husband, two sons and Saje.
Amy grew up in the area and bought her first horse at age 10 with $150 of her own money. It was a rescue horse, an Appaloosa gelding.
Here on this place, every horse has a story.
One was a world champion roper horse until he got navicular syndrome, a chronic inflammation of bone and surrounding tissue.
“They used him up and threw him away,” Amy said.
Lala is a registered paint champion show horse who earned 3,200 show points. She’s blind. Amy got her from a kill lot in Oklahoma. Prince, a quarter horse, was born in a kill pen.
There’s Louie, a 31-year-old Pony of the Americas. He’s blind, too.
“He’s got no teeth,” Saje said. “He eats 25 pounds of senior food every day.”
Most of the rescue horses are from the kill buyer they work with. They buy the horses and then try to recoup the money through adoptions.
The kill buyer lets Amy keep some of the horses at his place. And the kill lot is where people interested in adopting see the horses.
The Bayeses use a Facebook page to let people know what they have. At 700 last year, Greenwood Stables averaged nearly two adoptions a day.
Amy lists two rules for people to go to the kill lot:
“Don’t grump about the KB (kill buyer). It does no good. He is what he is.
“Don’t fight. Everyone has an opinion. So sometimes you just gotta let it go.”
Two women from Missouri showed up recently to look at, and adopt, a pregnant mare that had been dumped at another kill lot. One of the women, Beth Olson, a horse trainer from Warrensburg, supports slaughter in the U.S.
“We’ve all heard about the trips to Mexico,” she said. “If slaughter here ends that, then put me down.”
Saje Bayes shook her head at that: “I don’t agree.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let one of my horses go to slaughter because I love my horses,” Olson said.
Saje, who makes the daily trips to the kill buyer’s ranch, said it comes to value judgment.
“He thinks there’s good horses and bad horses,” she said. “We just disagree on what a good horse is.”
Amy has heard all the arguments on both sides and thinks there is plenty of blame to go around, including owners.
“When a horse breaks a leg, put it down,” she said. “Don’t take it to the auction.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182