The new law would prohibit slaughtering equines if a person knows "that any of the horse meat will be used for human consumption." It applies to any horse, pony, donkey or mule.
"I think it was important to get this going as a preemptive ordinance," said Councilman Dave Somers, before he and his colleagues passed it with a 4-0 vote.
Somers, who owns horses, said there were humane and environmental reasons for enacting the ban.
Breaking the law would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail.
The ordinance was amended to make it clear that nobody can be held legally responsible for selling a horse to another person who later slaughters it. That would allow feed lots to continue exporting horses for slaughter elsewhere.
About two dozen people testified during Wednesday's hearing, with a majority favoring the ban.
"We shouldn't turn Snohomish County into the horse-slaughter capital of America," said Russ Mead, general counsel for the Seattle-based Animal Law Coalition.
No horse slaughterhouses have legally operated anywhere in the United States since 2007, following Congress' decision to stop federal money from being used to inspect horses bound for slaughter. Recent changes in federal policy have created the opportunity to resume those inspections.
The market for horse meat is almost entirely overseas. For many Americans, eating horse is equivalent to eating a pet. However, it's widely consumed in parts of Europe and Asia. Even with a de facto ban on horse slaughterhouses, more than 100,000 U.S. horses are still exported each year for slaughter in Canada and Mexico.
In Snohomish County, rumors have circulated about a former horse slaughterhouse that operated at Florence Packing Co. south of Stanwood from the 1970s into the 1990s. The owner insists he has no plans to reopen the facility, though he does sell horses to a Canadian company that operates slaughter facilities north of the border.
"A horse slaughtering plant would be an environmental disaster for Snohomish County," according to Mead, who said such operations have the capacity to contaminate tens of thousands of gallons of water with horse blood. "The smell is atrocious."
Also speaking in favor of the ban was Snohomish equine veterinarian Dr. Hannah Mueller, who helps run the Monroe-based Northwest Equine Stewardship Center.
Her job often requires her to euthanize horses that can no longer live productive lives. While Mueller said it's possible to humanely euthanize a horse, it's impossible to humanely slaughter one because of their tendency to get spooked.
"They're highly emotional animals, sensitive beings who have been bred and raised to be humans' partners over the years, not to be slaughtered inhumanely," Mueller said.
Another vet testified against the slaughter ban.
"The question is not whether a horse will be eaten, but by whom?" said Dr. Richard Guthrie of Snohomish. "Is it better to be eaten by hungry people or by hungry worms after burial?"
Guthrie said he owns and loves horses, but believes slaughter is preferable to having them abandoned or neglected. The money spent to care for these animals could be better used for human welfare, he said.
"A dead animal, horse or cow, loses its personality and is just a lump of meat," Guthrie said.
Horse owner Karen Lee, from Snohomish, also said she favors slaughterhouses as an option.
"There needs to be a good way to get rid of unwanted horses," Lee said.
Celebrating the passage of the ban was Allen Warren, the founder of the Horse Harbor Foundation in Poulsbo and one of the people who urged Somers to pursue the legislation.
"I'm not a vegan," Warren said. "I enjoy a good steak as much as anybody. I'm against horse slaughter."
In 2013, Warren plans to work with like-minded advocates to push Olympia lawmakers to enact a statewide ban on horse slaughter. New Jersey recently enacted a ban, joining California, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois and Mississippi in effectively prohibiting the practice.
The county ban will take effect 10 days after being signed by the county executive.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, email@example.com.
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