Legal Background of Horse Slaughter in Texas

Did you know that horse slaughter for human consumption has technically been illegal in the State of Texas from 1949 to the present? The laws surrounding horse slaughter in the United States are complicated, and they vary from state to state. Below is an overview of the legal history of horse slaughter in Texas, from 1949 to present.

Photo:  Silhouette of a horse before a North Texas sunset

1949: 51st Texas Legislature passes a law that makes it a criminal offense for a person to 1) sell horsemeat as food for human consumption; 2) possess horsemeat intending to sell it as food for human consumption; and 3) transfer horsemeat to a person who intends to sell it as food for human consumption or who knows or reasonably should know that the person receiving the horsemeat intends to sell it as food for human consumption. See Article 719e of Vernon’s Texas Penal Code (now repealed). The 51st Legislature placed jurisdiction to investigate within the Board of Health’s powers as a matter related to the public health. However, Article 719e did not expressly authorize any particular entity to enforce the law.

1950: A news article quotes the “state health officer,” Dr. George W. Cox, as stating that the Department of Health was prosecuting “every violator we could find.” Health Officer Tells How to Stop Horse Meat Sales, Dallas Morning News, Mar. 17, 1950.

1952: Another news article quotes the same Dr. Cox, “state health officer”, as saying that sausage containing horsemeat “can’t be sold in Texas”. Neigh? Nay! Texans Can’t Horse Around with Sausage, Dallas Morning News, May 23, 1952.

1973The substance of Article 719e was transferred to Texas Revised Civil Statutes and again placed with statutes related to public health. It was not substantively changed.

Mid 1970’s: Horse slaughter companies Beltex (Fort Worth, Texas) and Dallas Crown (Kaufman, Texas) began marketing and processing horse-meat intended for human consumption in foreign countries. 

1991The statute prohibiting horse slaughter was codified as Chapter 149 of the Texas Agriculture Code (where it resides today). It was not substantively changed. Nothing in the current statute expressly authorizes any entity or agency to enforce the law.

2002: Texas State Representative Tony Goolsby requested that the Texas Attorney General clarify the enforceability of Chapter 149, which on its face prohibits the processing, sale or transfer of horsemeat for human consumption. AG John Cornyn issued this opinion, stating that Chapter 149 is applicable to the slaughterhouses in Texas and was not preempted by federal law. According to the opinion, Texas Department of Agriculture has no authority to investigate or assist in prosecuting violations of Chapter 149, but local prosecutors may investigate and prosecute alleged violations of Chapter 149.

2007: When the slaughterhouses learned of the 2002 AG opinion, and that Beltex and Dallas Crown were facing imminent prosecution, they brought a case in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, seeking a declaration of legal rights and responsibilities and to enjoin any potential prosecution of them under Chapter 149. The slaughterhouses generally asserted that Chapter 149 had been implicitly repealed and/or it was preempted by federal law. The trial court permanently enjoined the state from prosecuting the slaughterhouses under Chapter 149. On appeal, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment and injunction in favor of the slaughterhouses, finding that Chapter 149 had not been repealed, was not preempted by federal law, and that it did apply to the slaughterhouses. See Empacadora de Carnes de Fresnillo, S.A. de C.V. v. Curry, 476 F.3d 326 (5th Cir. 2007). As a result of this decision, Beltex and Dallas Crown shut down their operations in Texas.

2008: Attorney General Greg Abbott issued this opinion, stating that it is illegal under Chapter 149 for a foreign corporation to transport horsemeat for human consumption in-bond through Texas for immediate export to foreign destinations. Abbott made clear that neither federal law nor the U.S. Constitution invalidated this application of Chapter 149.

July 2012:  As discussed in this prior post, the Texas Senate Committee on Agricultural and Rural Affairs met to hear testimony on the economic impact of the closure of Texas's slaughterhouses.  According to this news story, some believe that a repeal of Chapter 149 could be on the table next legislative session.

Unless Chapter 149 is repealed or revised, horse slaughter remains illegal in Texas—though it can ostensibly be carried out in other U.S. jurisdictions barring the passage of any federal law that directly or indirectly prohibits it. Whether U.S. horse slaughter, in my opinion, remains a viable option from a legal prospective will be the topic of an upcoming post.

Recap of the 2012 Animal Law Institute

Last Friday, for the fourth or fifth time, I attended the annual Animal Law Institute.  The Institute is a CLE program put on by Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.  It moves around each year, but this year it was at Texas Wesleyan School of Law here in Fort Worth.

You may be wondering, “what is animal law, and is equine law a part of animal law?” I have been practicing equine law for years, and I still don’t really know the answer. According to Wikipedia,

animal law is a combination of statutory and case law in which the nature—legal, social or biological—of nonhuman animals is an important factor. Animal law encompasses companion animals, wildlife, animals used in entertainment and animals raised for food and research. The emerging field of animal law is often analogized to the environmental law movement 30 years ago.

Most of the speakers at the Institutes I have attended in the past have seemed to generally focus on 1) animal rights/welfare issues; and 2) issues related to animal rescues and public shelters. 

My equine law practice, by way of contrast, is primarily focused on business issues. That said, I have advised several equine-related 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

Rick and I at Will Rogers Equestrian Center with two of our animals. 

This year’s Institute covered a lot of animal welfare/rights issues, but it also added an overview of equine law by Dawn Reveley, and another presentation on vet malpractice defense into the mix.   Below is a recap:

  • Will Potter, a journalist from Washington, DC, discussed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This is a 2006 federal law with which I was not previously familiar. According to Potter, the law was pushed by animal industry groups and corporations to target animal rights protestors by labeling their activities as "terrorism".  Read more about it on Will Potter’s blog, Green is the New Red. To loosely quote Potter’s [very sound] advice to would-be animal rights protestors: “Come up with a plan and get organized before you stage your protest, so people won’t think you’re crazy!” 
  • Don Feare, an attorney from Arlington, Texas, shared some excellent information for attorneys who represent animal rescue groups. Some main points include (equine nonprofits, listen up!) 1) animal welfare groups should incorporate as a nonprofit corporation to limit liability; 2) liability insurance is a necessity, especially if the organization is doing public adoption events; and 3) adoption contracts should make clear when title to the animal passes to the new owner and should be signed by all adult members of the household at which the animal is being placed.
  • Scott Heiser, a Portland-based attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, talked about how his nonprofit organization helps local prosecutors win animal cruelty cases (both through financing and by helping try cases). Heiser discussed the “business records” exception to the hearsay rule, as it applies to veterinary reports in criminal animal abuse cases. In general, vet reports are not admissible in lieu of testimony under the business records exception if the vet report was “prepared specifically for use at trial.”
  • Nicole Paquette, Texas Senior State Director with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, DC, covered the new laws from 2011 Texas Legislature that the HSUS believes benefit animals. These bills include 1) HB 1451, the “Puppy Mill Bill”--requiring licensing and inspection of dog and cat breeders who maintain 11 or more female breeding animals; 2) HB 1103--“Responsible Pet Owner Classes” required for convicted animal abusers; and 3) HB 2471--the “Good Animal Samaritan Bill”, which limits civil liability of people who render aid to an injured or distressed animal.
  • Dr. Don Ferrill (remember him from this post?) talked about how to successfully defend veterinarians in malpractice and negligence cases. His advice to plaintiffs: “Always pay your vet bill before you sue your vet.”

Watch this website for information on next year's Animal Law Institute.

Judge Judy Awards Zero Damages in Horse Injury Case

On Friday, February 3, 2012, CBS aired the trial of horse owner Deborah Dobbs vs. horse trainer Sharon Jeffco on the show Judge Judy, in a case involving alleged injury to a horse at the hands of a trainer.  This case has caused quite a stir in the horse community, possibly because of the unique nature of the alleged injuries to the horse.

Dobbs sued Jeffco for $5,000 (the jurisdictional limit on Judge Judy), alleging that her 5-year-old mare, “Misty”, sustained severe tongue lacerations due to Jeffco’s training methods. Dobbs specifically complained that Jeffco used an “ill-fitting bit”. Dobbs posted this photo of the alleged injuries on Facebook  [CAUTION: photo is graphic].  Dobbs admitted that she was present during the entire training session in question. 

During the trial on Judge Judy, Jeffco alleged that Misty had the cuts on her tongue before Jeffco started training her, but Jeffco was unaware of the wounds until they were reopened and started bleeding during the course of Jeffco’s final training session. Jeffco brought a counterclaim against Dobbs for defamation and business disparagement. Jeffco did not get to put on her full case during the trial on Judge Judy, but she posted this statement with supporting documents on her website. 

The bit was not shown during the trial.  As far as I know, Jeffco has not posted a photo anywhere of the bit she used on Misty during the incident in question. But a vet report included in Jeffco’s statement about what happened indicated that it was a “solid shank bit.”

This case left me wondering, “can any bit really cause this much damage during a short period of time?” I asked professional horseman Liz Payne of Unity Equestrian Arts, LLC what she thought about the evidence revealed in the trial itself. According to Payne,

There is no excuse for a tongue to be cut, ever.  The amount of damage to this tongue is hard to believe.  In over 40 years of training horses I have never seen anything like this, in fact I have never seen a cut tongue.  I have unanswered questions.  Someone is responsible for the damage to the horse.  The sorting out who caused this horrific damage seems to be the difficult challenge.  There is never an excuse for damaging a horse, physically or mentally.”

Without opining on who was liable for the horse's injuries, the judge awarded zero damages to both parties on their claims. Below are some of the reasons (potential litigants, take note!):

1) Neither party brought a veterinarian with them to the trial. Only Dobbs had a report from a veterinarian who actually treated the horse. The judge seemed to lend little credence to the reports from Jeffco's vets who had not seen or treated the injuries.  Parties to horse injury suits should always bring a vet with them to testify, and preferably one who saw the horse as opposed to someone who drew conclusions from documents, photographs, radiographs, etc.

2)  Dobbs witnessed the incident in question, but she did not leave the premises with her horse as soon as she allegedly believed that Jeffco was using abusive methods. This admission detracted from Ms. Dobbs’s credibility with the judge, especially with respect to Dobbs's allegations that Jeffco tied the mare's head down and used a longe whip on the horse.

3)  Jeffco paid Dobbs $953.50 in restitution in a related criminal animal cruelty proceeding. Judge Judy ruled that Jeffco waived her defamation claim when she paid the restitution to the plaintiff.  The judge further ruled that Dobbs had been fully compensated by the restitution check in the criminal case, and therefore awarded her $0 damages.  The effects on a civil case of actions taken in a related criminal case is something clients should discuss with their counsel before taking action.

4)  Jeffco and Dobbs repeatedly make comments to one-another during the trial.  This agitated the judge (as it is considered unacceptable behavior in any courtroom).  As such, the parties' conduct at trial may have made the judge more inclined to give both parties nothing.  

I in no way condone the use of training methods that might cause these types of injuries to a horse.  But it should be noted that trainers might protect themselves from unfounded claims of horse injury or abuse by having all training clients sign a written training agreement, whereby the client releases the trainer of liability should the horse be injured in training and/or if the training does not achieve the desired results.

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Can Jaci Rae Jackson Be Hanged for Horse Theft?

We’ve all heard accounts that horse thieves have, in the past, been sentenced to death by courts in Texas or legally hanged by vigilantes.  The demise of Jake and his compatriots in the movie Lonesome Dove is a depiction of one such vigilante hanging in Texas.  All kidding aside, verifiable accounts of capital punishment for horse theft (both after a trial and by vigilantes) come not only from Texas, but also from other U.S. states and even other from other countries.  

Photo: Per Wikipedia, this photo is of a horse thief's hanging in Oregon, circa 1900 [Source

According to a BBC news story from May 2011, some folks in Scotland even reenacted the events surrounding the 1811 hanging of a fellow named George Watson for horse theft.  Watson was described in the BBC article as a “tinker-traveller” who made off with a “distinctive grey Clydesdale mare” belonging to a man who offered shelter to Watson and his family.  Watson is alleged to be the last man hanged in Scotland for horse theft.

Urban legend has it that horse thieves can still be hanged or sentenced to death in Texas.  But unfortunately for those who still wish to see horse thieves put to death, horse thievery is no longer a capital felony in Texas.  Under Texas Penal Code Section 31.03(e), horse theft is a third-degree felony (2 to 10 years in prison) if the value of the horses stolen in a single transaction is less than $100,000.  Horse theft in Texas is punishable as a second degree felony (2 to 20 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $100,000 to $199,999, and a first degree felony (5 to 99 years in prison) if the horses stolen in a single transaction are worth $200,000 or more.  See also Chapter 12 of the Texas Penal Code

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the power of any U.S. state to impose the death penalty against an individual for committing a crime that did not result in the death of a human victim is now limited to crimes against the state (i.e., espionage, treason).

But vigilante justice for horse thieves is not completely dead in Texas.  As discussed previously, there are still circumstances under which a person in Texas could legally shoot or otherwise kill a horse thief if the person, for example, is a witness to horse theft in progress and the circumstances warrant the use of lethal force.  See these prior posts:

When is it Legal to Shoot a Trespasser?

How to Deal With Trespassers on Your Property

Facts revealed in the recent Jaci Rae Jackson case may cause some to wish capital punishment were still available for horse theft.  As you have probably read by now, Jackson is a now 19 year-old Southern Arkansas University student who was charged this week with a number of felonies in Arkansas and Oklahoma for the theft of 5 college rodeo horses and a horse trailer.  Jackson cannot (if convicted) be sentenced to death for her actions.  Ms. Jackson has also been charged with related post-theft crimes which, according to reports, include allegedly participating in the killing and dismemberment of one stolen horse, and tying the 4 others to trees without sufficient food or water.  Ms. Jackson’s arraignment is expected to occur on December 15, 2011.

Photo: Jaci Rae Jackson [Source

Apropos, how can we all take steps to prevent the theft of our horses and trailers and make sure thieves are brought to justice?  Dr. Pete Gibbs, Texas A & M University professor and Extension Horse Specialist, published an informative article entitled “15 Steps to Minimizing Theft of Horses and Equipment”, which can be downloaded here.