They Shoot Horses Don't They?
As featured in the Good Weekend, November 17 2016
After I toss and turn for hours, my phone pings at 1.52am, alerting me to an email. Instinctively, I know who sent it. My dad and I not only share the same birthday but a lifelong predisposition to insomnia. Already sleepless, I'm now fully alert, absorbing every line of the anguished message: my father is overcome with guilt. He's been harbouring a dark secret for most of his adult life, silenced by his fear of being judged by his greatest critic, himself. "I sold my soul for a buck and it makes me feel hollow," he writes.
I should provide background. In 1985, my father joined a horse-racing syndicate that gave him 25 per cent ownership of two yearlings. Over the next four years, they won $1.1 million in prize money. My father was hooked, not so much by the money – he was already a wealthy man – but by the art of breeding.
On 80 hectares on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, my parents built a cutting-edge stud farm where they bred and trained more than 200 horses.
But my dad's treasured memories, of broodmares giving birth and watching the foals take their first halting steps, had a darker side – horses that were injured or just not fast enough were dispatched to a place I now know to be the knackery.
This is the cause of my father's anguish. He is still deeply troubled that most of his beloved horses met their fate inside a slaughterhouse.
Up until his email, I knew nothing about the knackeries. I presumed, naively, that when a thoroughbred no longer raced, it was rehomed and lived out its years in green pastures. It was unimaginable that the horses that had once grazed in the paddocks of our family farm wound up elsewhere with a bullet in their head.
And so one weekend soon after the email, I head to the saleyards in Pakenham, about 60 kilometres south-east of Melbourne's CBD. My father insists on coming – he says he wants to support me, but I wonder if it is part of his own quest to seek atonement, to witness the side of the industry that he had tried to ignore. It's certainly a stark contrast to the excitement of the world-renowned Inglis auctions he was accustomed to, where thoroughbreds would be bought for enormous sums.
We stand on an elevated platform overlooking rows of horses pressed into small pens, their eyes bulging and flanks quivering with fear.
"Bloody mongrels," a woman next to me says. "They're all here today." She is referring to the "doggers", knackery owners or staff who have come to bid for their weekly quota of horse meat. Their quarry are horses worked too hard too young – the bigger the better – and are now injured. Their worth now is between $100 and $350 each. "Pen 16, gelding, approximately 13 hands, broken in," cries the auctioneer. The crowd presses forward, "$80, $120, $140; $140 going once, twice … sold to number 12."
Within minutes, the gelding's fate is sealed. It is sold to the Maffra District Knackery in East Gippsland. I look at my father, pain etched on his face. Without a word we leave.
Laverton is 22 kilometres south-west of Melbourne's city centre and just over 16 kilometres from Flemington Racecourse. It is here, in this industrial wasteland, that horses are brought from the saleyards to be shot and cut up. Laverton Knackery is one of 33 such establishments in Australia, producing dog food, meat meal, tallow, hair, hides and other products for sale here and overseas.
The horses are transported in a run-down cattle truck. Once at the knackery they are kept in a back paddock and one by one herded into a barren yard where they are lined up in front of a killing pen, to await their fate – a bullet to the brain. Normally they die instantly, but on occasions they linger for a few shuddering seconds.
In 2012, The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses released secretly filmed footage alleging inhumane treatment at the slaughterhouse. An RSPCA investigation resulted in no charges being laid, but the knackery received a formal warning and some practices were changed. The outrage prompted two zoos to source animal feed from elsewhere.
I watch the footage; nothing can prepare me for what I see. Horses beaten on the head with plastic piping as they stand shaking, waiting for their turn in the killing pen. In one scene, a horse is shot, a rope attached to its leg while it is apparently still alive, and it is dragged 60 metres across gravel and concrete to the slaughterhouse by tractor.
I decide to visit Laverton, arriving the day after the horse clearance sales at Echuca, 225 kilometres away. From the street, the knackery looks to be little more than a few dilapidated tin sheds. "FRESH PET MEAT" is painted in red on the outside wall. I open the car door and am immediately assailed by the sweet, pungent smell of blood and offal.
A few minutes later I am brought to a halt by the sound of a gun being fired. I inch around the property, following a tall metal fence built around the killing pen. Through an opening, I see a small herd of dark brown horses huddled together on dank soil. Sales reports from the previous day indicate that the knackery has purchased about a dozen horses. Perhaps these are the remaining six. One of the horses stares straight at me. We hold each other's gaze for what seems an eternity.
"We sell premium dog meat at $2.50 per kilo," the woman behind the knackery's sales counter tells me matter-of-factly. The horse I have just seen weighs probably 400 kilograms – once the skeleton has been removed, that's about $500 worth of premium dog food. "The horses are sliced, gutted, de-boned and refrigerated overnight for collection the following morning," she adds.
As she speaks, I see through a doorway behind her. A spectral figure moves around what looks like a boxer's punching bag. It is the leg of a horse, hanging by its hoof. The butcher slices off the meat, tossing each piece into a bucket. I have to leave immediately.
Not all the horses being slaughtered are retired racehorses. The "doggers" do not discriminate when it comes to the origin of their meat. Brumbies, too, make up a proportion of their quota – Australia has more wild horses than anywhere else in the world, with between 400,000 and 1 million estimated to be running free in our national parks.
The exportation of horsemeat is a multimillion-dollar industry and Australia is a leading player. Figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reveal Australia produced 26,000 tonnes of horsemeat in 2010.
According to the Australian Horse Welfare & Rescue News Blog, there are two abattoirs in Australia that prepare horsemeat for human consumption, with a combined kill rate of about 8400 horses a year. The meat is exported to Italy and France and other countries in Europe, as well as throughout Asia. The Italians make sfilacci di cavallo, a cured horsemeat, the Dutch eat it smoked and the Japanese like to eat it raw – horse sashimi.
Animal welfare organisation Equine Action Qld estimates between 22,000 and 32,000 horses are slaughtered every year at the knackeries and among these are ex-racehorses.
Not a week goes by when my father doesn't recall his racing days and the guilt that comes with them. "Any person who brings a living creature into this world has a duty of care to ensure they are looked after for the duration of their life," he tells me. "I failed to do this."
My father's involvement in the horse racing industry lasted 20 years; in 2004 he decided he'd had enough. The elation of winning events such as the AJC Derby and Caulfield Cup was always overshadowed by the guilt he carried. "We love our horses when they are performing," he reflects. "We groom them, talk to them, and admire their athletic appearance and ability. Then we turn our back on them if they fail to live up to our expectations."