AUGUSTA – A bill to prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption and ban the transportation of horses through Maine to be slaughtered in Canada drew support from animal rights activists but opposition from many other groups at a public hearing Tuesday.

L.D. 1286, sponsored by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, and Rep. Elizabeth Dickerson, D-Rockland, now will be scheduled for a work session and vote in the Agriculture, Conversation and Forestry Committee, but its fate is uncertain. Similar bills have been defeated in each of the last two legislatures.

In introducing the latest bill, Knight said Maine has become a “funnel for horse slaughter” to Canada, where the meat is processed for sale in Europe and elsewhere. He said an estimated 1,500 horses are sent each year through Maine to Canada to be killed, although it’s not clear how many of those horses originated from Maine stables.

Knight said he wants Maine to stop being a thoroughfare for horses sent to die, but he also wants to prevent a slaughterhouse from opening in this state.

The U.S. banned slaughterhouses for horses in 2007 after the Department of Agriculture ran out of money to pay for inspections. Last year, however, the department resumed inspections, allowing slaughterhouses to open. Since then, some states, including New Jersey, have passed laws to ban horse slaughter.

“Horse slaughter is not something we want and not something we want to be complicit in,” Knight said.

Representatives of many groups, though, including the Maine Farm Bureau Association, the Maine Veterinary Association and the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association, said the bill plays on the emotions of animal rights activists without addressing equine welfare.

“This tries to fix a problem that hasn’t been proven to exist,” said Wendy Ireland, executive director of the Maine Harness Horsemen’s Association.

Janelle Tirrell, an equine veterinarian speaking on behalf of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, said the bill could end up doing more harm than good if it forces horse owners to keep infirm horses alive or if it forces them to do their own slaughtering.

“There are fates worse than slaughter,” she said. “I see them every day.”

Tirrell said many horse owners simply don’t have the means to keep the animals alive or to euthanize and bury them.

Kathy Wilson, who owns a Brunswick pet store, said she thinks opening a horse slaughterhouse in Maine would be a good idea because horses would not have to travel so far to meet their deaths. She said supporters of the bill might mean well but shouldn’t put horses on the same level as dogs and cats.

“Horses are livestock, not household pets,” she said.

Animal welfare groups, led by the Maine Friends of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said slaughtering horses is inhumane in almost all circumstances. Furthermore, supporters of the bill argued that horses are not raised for consumption and are often treated with drugs that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The bill as drafted would make it a Class C felony for any violations to the law. Some who testified Tuesday saw that provision as overly punitive.

Jill Barkley with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said her organization, given the prison problems in this country, does not support any bill that creates a new felony that could add to the prison population.

John Pelletier of the Criminal Law Advisory Commission said he, too, was troubled by the penalty. “Generally, we don’t use criminal law to regulate commerce,” he said. “There are some very serious Class C crimes and we don’t feel this is proportionate.”

Clayton Weeks, a 79-year-old from Mexico who testified in opposition to the bill, said he was offended by the language in the bill that suggests anyone who eats horse meat should undergo a mental health evaluation. Weeks said he’s eaten horse meat and doesn’t think there is anything wrong with it.

“If this bill fails, as it should, I think the people that keep introducing it ought to be mentally evaluated,” he said.

Eric Russell can be reached at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell