FORNEY, Texas — Mike McBarron stepped out of the 96-degree heat and into a shed on his feedlot after loading 37 horses onto a truck. They were headed to Mexico, where they would be slaughtered and shipped around the world for human consumption.
“It’s just a job to me,” McBarron told USA TODAY Sports. “I mean, I don’t attach myself to them. I don’t fall in love with them.”
McBarron, 48, is one of the country’s most prolific “kill buyers,” people who buy horses and sell them to slaughterhouses. They also represent an uncomfortable reality for the horse racing industry.
Over the past decade, an average of more than 600 thoroughbreds a year have died because of racing, according to research by the USA TODAY Network. By contrast, an estimated 7,500 thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered for human consumption, according to Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA).
From the racetrack to a dinner plate, it has been said of thoroughbreds that are slaughtered and end up in restaurants and markets throughout Asia and Europe in countries such as China, Japan, Germany and Russia.
“The problem is that the entire industry is a conveyor belt for slaughter,’’ said John Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the slaughter of American horses. “They just keep cranking them (out).’’
McBarron, who acknowledged he has bought and sold retired racehorses for slaughter, has sent tens of thousands of horses to slaughter plants and generated millions of dollars in revenue, according to invoices cited in an informal investigation conducted by a nonprofit group called Animals’ Angels. That practice is unlikely to be a popular topic this week at the Breeders’ Cup, which has attracted many of the sport’s top horses and intense scrutiny of the sport.
Santa Anita Park, the Southern California racetrack that on Friday and Saturday will host the annual event, is dealing with the backlash from a string of race-related horse deaths — 36 since December. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office has launched an investigation and, as protesters decry the horse deaths at Santa Anita and elsewhere, PETA has called on states to suspend racing “until real answers are supplied about these deaths and the carnage is ended.”
Meanwhile, without public outcry, American-born thoroughbreds are trucked across the border for slaughter. So far this year, accounting for all breeds, more than 57,000 horses have been shipped for slaughter to Mexico and Canada from the United States, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.
McBarron, who said he’s been in the business of shipping horses to slaughter for 30 years, suggests it’s a public service because he said the horses would otherwise be abandoned.
“Baby, you want to talk about an apocalypse now,” McBarron said, invoking images of cars colliding with horses. “It ain’t like hitting a dog. You hit a horse, it’s maybe 1,300 pounds. It’s like hitting a brick wall.
“The animal lovers, they don’t understand stuff like that.”
Most of the thoroughbreds shipped for slaughter are little known, but not all of them.
Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, likely died in a slaughterhouse, according to a 2003 report published by The Blood-Horse, a weekly news magazine focusing on the thoroughbred industry.
The Blood-Horse reported that Ferdinand, born in Kentucky and later sold to a Japanese breeding farm, likely died in a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002 and probably became steak or pet food.
Outrage reached Capitol Hill.
In 2006, by a vote of 263-146, the House of Representatives passed legislation to not only ban horse slaughter in the U.S. but also ban the transport and export of American horses for slaughter. The bill died in the Senate.
Similar efforts since then have fizzled despite bipartisan support from prominent lawmakers with Vice President Mike Pence voting in favor of horse slaughter prohibition in 2006, when he was an Indiana congressman, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing the same. Nine times legislation to ban horse slaughter has been introduced in Congress, and eight times it has failed to be enacted into law.
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John Sweeney, the former Republican congressman from New York who sponsored the House 2006 bill, said he got a firsthand look at the horse slaughter business while traveling with animal rights activists, and he characterized kill buyers as “like the dregs of society.’’
“If the vast majority of people got a look at it, what they were doing, they would be put out of business in a New York minute,’’ Sweeney said. “People would be revolted by it and the rats would all run for the hills.’’
Sweeney said the “agricultural establishment,” including the cattle lobby, has blocked the legislation. (Farmers have said they worry a ban on the slaughter of horses could lead to a ban on the slaughter of other livestock — a so-called “slippery slope.” Ranchers have said slaughter is an important way to protect their land from being overrun by wild horses.)
“It shouldn’t have been controversial (legislation), but you had all of these sort of powerful interests tied to campaign contributions,’’ said Sweeney, who served four terms in Congress.
Yet Sweeney and his allies scored a victory.
In 2006, Congress passed a budget that barred the USDA from using taxpayer funds for inspection at horse slaughter plants, effectively creating a temporary ban on horse slaughter that Congress has renewed with each subsequent federal budget. At about the same time, state law in Texas and Illinois also were used to shut down the last three U.S.-based horse slaughter plants.
REFORM OR EXTINCTION? Many see horse slaughter as existential threat to racing
While McBarron and the other kill buyers adapted by exporting horses to Mexico and Canada, they also have found new customers — some of the same people who decry horse slaughter, in fact.
Purchasing horses at auctions and private sales, McBarron and other kill buyers post photos of the horses on Facebook and other social media websites and offer potential buyers a chance to save them. The kill buyers can sell the horses to slaughter plants for about 60 cents a pound, according to McBarron, but first try to find online buyers.
“Don’t nobody buy them, then we ship them to slaughter,’’ said McBarron, who also has shipped donkeys and mules for slaughter. “We’re not going to keep them around just to look at them. I mean, we’re in this for a business.”
Then there is another business — exposing kill buyers.
That August day when McBarron loaded up the 37 horses, Sonja Meadows, an animal rights activist for Animals’ Angels, was secretly taking video of activity at McBarron’s feedlot. Yet again.
Her informal investigation of McBarron began six years ago.
In 2016, Meadows published a report on the Animals’ Angels website that claimed, “Mike McBarron runs a multi-million dollar operation while violating animal protection laws and regulations as well as environmental laws on a regular basis.”
Meadows, who obtained documents and did surveillance of McBarron, alleged that horses at McBarron’s feedlot die without assistance, carry infectious diseases such as strangles or equine influenza and fail to get veterinary care for infected wounds and other medical problems.
McBarron denied the allegations.
“Do I have horses die at my facility? Sometimes I do, yes,’’ McBarron said. “Horses are like people. They die. But they ain’t dying because I’m mistreating them or starving them or letting them go without veterinary care.’’
Once Meadows’ report was complete, she said, she forwarded it to the USDA, Texas Office of the Attorney General, Texas Department of Environmental Quality and the sheriff’s office in Kaufman County, where McBarron lives. To date, according to Meadows, the only information available about action taken in response to her allegations of McBarron is he received a warning from the Department of Environmental Quality for burying horses on an adjacent property.
Meadows’ allegations fall outside the scope of the USDA authority, said Joelle Hayden, a public affairs specialist for USDA’s investigative arm who added that animal cruelty cases are handled by state law enforcement.
The three other agencies Meadows said she contacted about McBarron’s alleged violations did not respond to USA TODAY Sports’ requests for information about whether they followed up on her complaints.
After Meadows published her allegations, McBarron built a fence about 10 feet high that he said was an attempt to restrict the view of his property from animal rights activists.
But that hasn’t stopped Meadows.
As McBarron worked at his feedlot, Meadows prepared to climb a tree on a neighboring property.
“Watch for the snakes once we get to the underbrush,’’ she said.
Her forearms were scraped. Her left shoulder was bruised. Two days earlier, Meadows explained, she climbed a tree while trying to secretly shoot video at the property of another kill buyer. A tree limb broke and she fell 6 feet, said Meadows, 46.
“This line of work isn’t without risks,” she said, adding that while conducting her investigations, she and her husband, Keith, have had guns pointed at them, been chased by hornets and pit bulls, and fallen into a river and from trees.
When attending public auctions, Meadows said, sometimes she wears a wig to mask her identity and records video with a hidden camera. The day she recorded at McBarron’s property, she outfitted herself in camouflage gear — hat, jacket and gloves.
With her husband cupping his hands and providing a lift, Meadows clambered up the tree and settled between two limbs. Then she pulled out her camera and surveyed the property for signs of animal cruelty — something that might otherwise be handled by enforcement agencies.
‘Never forget that sound’
The USDA remains responsible for enforcing laws regarding the transport of horses for slaughter in Mexico and Canada. Those laws, spelled out in the Commercial Transportation of Equines for Slaughter Act (CTESA), are designed to protect the health and welfare of the horses. But the USDA has been forced to rein in the oversight, said Joelle Hayden, a public affairs specialist for USDA’s investigative arm.
“Due to current Congressional funding restrictions, USDA is prohibited from inspecting horses covered under the CTESA,’’ Hayden said by email. “These restrictions have been in place for the past few years. If we receive evidence of CTESA noncompliance, we look into the matter and take enforcement action as warranted.”
Sweeney said the USDA never wanted to enforce regulations and he dismissed the notion that funding restrictions has anything to do with it.
“They always came up with that excuse,’’ he said.
That’s where activists such as Meadows come in.
Born and raised in Germany, Meadows said, “I remember as soon as I could walk I would bring home injured birds and dogs, driving my mother crazy.’’
Meadows said she was working as an attorney in the automotive industry in 2005 when she took a road trip in Texas that changed her life. Driving through the night, she stopped at a gas station.
“I heard the cashier say, ‘Oh, here they are again. Poor horses. They’re all going to be steak soon.’ ” Meadows said. “There was a big rig, a big transport truck, that had about 40 horses on it.
“I will never forget that sound. I’ve heard it so many times now, but that first time still sticks in my mind. How their hooves kicked the aluminum sides of the trailer with such force.
“I looked into the trailer and they were standing in there, crammed like sardines, with their heads down. And the next thing that always stuck with me was how angry the driver was. He came at me and he said, ‘What are you looking at?’ ”
When she returned to Germany, she began researching the horse slaughter industry, Meadows said. In less than two years, she had given up her job as an attorney, moved to Maryland and started Animals’ Angels Inc., a nonprofit devoted to exposing animal cruelty, with a focus on horse slaughter.
Investigations were launched by Animals’ Angels. Results were published online. Donations came pouring in.
Animals’ Angels, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, raised more than $6 million between 2013 and 2018, according to tax forms. There are 665 investigative reports published on the group’s website, with more than 500 on horse slaughter.
Even though transporting American horses for slaughter is legal, Meadows said she has found countless cases of animal cruelty and reported alleged offenders to authorities.
McBarron is one of 40 large-scale kill buyers she has identified. The signs of his financial success are easy to spot.
McBarron lives on a 9.7-acre property about 20 miles east of Dallas, and his Mercedes and Chevy Suburban were parked in the carport during a visit to his home. He lives with his wife, Katie, and her young daughter from a previous relationship.
McBarron also owns a 23-foot pontoon and, according to public records, lakefront property in Malakoff, Texas, that he bought this year for about $500,000.
Yet because he has made his money in the horse slaughter business, McBarron said, animal rights activists think he’s “the devil.’’ Think again, McBarron said.
“I’m going to heaven when I die,’’ he said. “I’m a Christian, a born-again Christian. I believe in Jesus, I’m a godly man.
“You know, I got a little potty mouth. I can’t help it. We all fall short of the Lord, you know what I’m saying?’’
In 2007, the USDA fined him $21,000 for violations that included shipping a horse that could not bear weight on all four legs and for non-compliant paperwork, according to records. McBarron told a USDA investigator he tried to pay a veterinarian to sign 50 blank health certificates, which is illegal.
“And he would not do it,’’ McBarron told the USDA investigator of the veterinarian, according to a transcript of the interview.
In August, about 70 miles from his home, McBarron pulled into the parking lot at Johnson County Livestock Exchange in Cleburne, Texas, for a weekly horse auction. Meadows and her husband had arrived more than an hour earlier.
McBarron was looking for horses. Meadows was looking for dirt.
The future of horse slaughter
Fiddling with his cellphone and taking an occasional dip of smokeless tobacco, McBarron stood inside the arena during the auction. By his own count, McBarron bought 29 horses, including the two thoroughbreds for sale.
Before the auction began, one of the thoroughbreds caught Meadows’ attention. She approached the horse, spotted a gash inside its left hind leg and took a photo of the injury. She also took video of malnourished-looking horses. Never mind the posted signs stating no photos or video allowed.
Though McBarron has been one of her targets, Meadows said the ultimate goal is to end horse slaughter for human consumption.
“We’re currently working on stopping the demand in Europe by showing the primary consumer over there what these horses go through over here,’’ she said. “And it’s been pretty successful.’’
In 2014, Meadows presented a report on behalf of Animals’ Angels in Brussels to the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, showing evidence of widespread animal cruelty in the horse slaughter industry. Effective January 2015, the EU banned the import of horse meat from Mexico — a decision that was triggered in part by the detection of banned veterinary drugs in Mexican horse meat.
Since then, the annual number of horses exported for slaughter to Mexico and Canada last year dropped to 97,000 from 152,000, according to figures from the Equine Welfare Alliance. The number is projected to drop again this year.
The push for a law to permanently ban horse slaughter in the U.S. and to forbid the export of horses continues, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and three other senators sponsoring the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act — legislation that would ban the transport and export of horses for slaughter.
Holland, president of the Equine Welfare Alliance, said there’s no need to fear horse overpopulation if horse slaughter is eliminated as a way to absorb so-called unwanted horses. He said the historical record proves market forces quickly correct the potential issue of horse overpopulation.
“This is not to say that we should not discourage overbreeding,’’ said Holland, who also supports retraining racehorses for second careers such as trail horses and who commended the National Thoroughbred Racing Association for bolstered efforts in doing that.
Said Waldrop, the NTRA’s president, “We’ve got to end the slaughter of horses for human consumption. We’re going to do everything we can to take care of every thoroughbred when it comes off the track.’’
If new homes and second careers can’t be found for those horses, McBarron and the kill buyers are waiting.
“Well, people like me buy ’em because that’s what we do,’’ McBarron said. “I’m just trying to make a little money.’’