Fraud case turns spotlight on horse slaughter issue

The case sparked widespread outrage inside the horse industry and among ordinary animal lovers alike.

A young Chester County horse dealer was charged with defrauding horse owners by posing as a rescue and instead sending their animals to slaughter.

A preliminary hearing for Kelsey Lefever 24, of Honeybrook, was to be held in Dauphin County Monday but the case was continued and is rescheduled for Feb. 21.

The five counts of fraud against Lefever, who was well known in the show horse world and in rescue circles, were brought the Pennsylvania State Police in November after a months-long investigation.

In two instances Lefever had told the owners of retired racehorses at Penn National racetrack outside of Harrisburg that she would retrain and find homes for their horse.

Instead she sold them to "kill buyers" in a parking lot deal at the New Holland auction in Lancaster who shipped them to Canada to be butchered for meat for human consumption overseas.

But testimony by a witness suggests there were many more. Lefever, she said, told her she sent 120 horses to slaughter. (See Inquirer story here)

Lefever could face 31 years of imprisonment and fines of up to $65,000 if convicted on the three felony and two misdemeanor counts, according to prosecutors.

The Lefever case emerged just as the debate over slaughter has gained steam again. Horse slaughter had effectively been banned in the U.S. since 2008 when the last plant closed because federal funding for inspectors had been eliminated.

Now, under a new budget bill, that funding has been restored. Pro-slaughter advocates, like United Horsemens Front which will focus on slaughter in the U.S. at its annual meeting in April, have been lobbying to bring back the industry pointing to what they call a glut of horses.

They also argue that unwanted horses would suffer less if they were killed in plants in this country, rather than being shipped to Mexico or Canada as they are now.

But don't tell any of that to the average American who does not believe equine pets belong on dinner plates.

That's according to the ASPCA which conducted a nationwide poll last week that found 80 percent of Americans oppose horse slaughter.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans are not just against horse slaughter but are intensely opposed to this cruel practice. As more people learn that we are allowing our horses to be shuttled off to a gruesome death all for the sake of foreign gourmands, they are outraged and opposition for this grisly act is growing,” said Nancy Perry, senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations. “Anyone who has been to the movies lately knows the price horses have paid by carrying us to war, building our nation, and serving our entertainment and companionship needs. Americans have a responsibility to protect these intelligent, sensitive animals from being butchered.”

Here's why the ASPCA says slaughter is inhumane:

Horse slaughter is inherently cruel because the biology of horses makes them difficult to stun and they often remain conscious during their slaughter. In addition, horsemeat can be toxic to humans, as horses are frequently administered drugs that violate the safety regulations mandated for food animals.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., PA) is among federal lawmakers advocating for a permanent ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 2966 and S. 1176 ), which would prohibit the sale and transport of horses for slaughter in the United States, as well as across the border to Canada and Mexico. The passage of this legislation would end the current export and slaughter of approximately 100,000 American horses each year.

The group also argues the majority of horses killed for human consumption are in good condition and could go on to lead productive lives in loving homes. They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the ASPCA says, and this means that any horse, no matter how loved, is just one bad sale away from the slaughterhouse until the nation bans this practice.

Many groups are trying to do their part to reroute horses that might end up crammed in a trailer heading for the border, chief among them is Philadelphia Park, which three years ago began what is likely the strongest anti-slaughter program of any racetrack. 

The track banned the auction sale of horses off the track and warned trainers they would permanently lose their stalls if they were caught (Track officials say they just threw out the first trainer caught violating the restriction). At the same time, they developed a retrain and rehome program, Turning for Home, which is funded by fees placed on winnings, uses area trainers to turn racehorses into show and pleasure horses. 

Maryland trainer Steuart Pitman, who works with young retired racehorses at his farm, prepping them for new careers, last month launched the Retired Racehorse Trainer Challenge - think "Dancing with the Stars" for horse trainers and equines.

Four top trainers were matched with four right-off-the-track thoroughbreds at the Maryland Horse Expo last month. (For a report on the kick off click on the Chronicle of the Horse here). You can follow their progress through blog entries and video on the RRTC website and on its Facebook page. 

At the Pennsylvania Horse Expo later this month (Feb. 24-26), the trainers will show off their mounts and a winner will be chosen.