T. Boone Pickens To the Rescue

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Texas oilman and rancher T. Boone Pickens grabbed a lot of sympathetic headlines after Hurricane Katrina by airlifting 800 abandoned dogs and cats out of the storm zone. Now he's gone to Capitol Hill to fight for another of man's best friends — the horse. Lassoed by his wife, Madeleine, who owns a stable, Pickens is pressing for passage of a national law banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption in foreign countries. Surprisingly, he has plenty of opposition to the bill — called the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act — including some of his former buddies in the cattle business. "I don't like it," says Pickens, "and I'm going to do everything I can to stop it."

Pickens, who owns a ranch in West Texas, says more than 100,000 horses are slaughtered in the U.S. every year for consumption as a "delicacy" by diners in Europe, mostly France and Belgium, as well as Japan — an idea that repulses and outrages him. "I can't imagine slaughtering a horse [to eat]," says Pickens, "It's absolutely un-American." The horses are slaughtered at one of three plants, two in Texas and one in Illinois, all owned by a Belgian entrepreneur. "We don't eat horsemeat here, so it does seem peculiar that someone from Belgium owns the kill plant and the meat is sent to Europe," he says. "Why not in their own countries? Why come to America to do the dirty deal?"

Pickens, best known as the founder of BP Capital and Mesa Petroleum, admits horse slaughtering was not high on his agenda until his wife, Madeleine, who raises thoroughbred horses, got involved. "My wife is a great animal lover. I'm more passive. She's more aggressive," he says, with a laugh. Paula Bacon, the mayor of Kaufman, Texas — where one of the plants, Dallas Crown, is located — alerted them to the problem. "Paula Bacon told me the kill plant had $12 million in gross revenues and only pays $5 in taxes but it clogs the sewage system up." A court ordered the plant to shut down by Sept. 30 for failure to pay fines in the thousands of dollars. Pickens is equally riled that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) oversees and spends millions in taxpayer dollars supervising these plants — Dallas Crown in Kaufman as well as Beltex Corporation in Fort Worth, and Cavel International in DeKalb, Ill. — although selling horsemeat is banned in a lot of states. "It's incredible to me that our money is wasted on meat being shipped out of the country," he says.

So what did Pickens, a major Republican contributor, do? He picked up the phone and called his representative, Republican Joe Barton of Texas, and alerted him to the issue — only to find out that a number of old buddies were against banning the slaughter, including the Texas Southwest Cattlemen's Association, the Texas A&M Extension Service and former Democratic Congressman Charlie Stenholm, who was hired as a lobbyist by slaughter proponents. "Somebody is putting money into this for a lobbyist to be on it," says Pickens. He warned Barton that people were getting worked up over the issue. "I told him when you get women like my wife and Paula Bacon involved, you give ‘em an ax and they'll do some chopping." So Barton called a hearing Tuesday before a House of Representatives Energy & Commerce subcommittee. (A commerce subcommittee since proponents contend that banning horse slaughtering for food sales violates commerce laws.) The House Majority leader, John Boehner, has said the House will vote on the bill after summer recess.

Even more outrageous to Pickens is the fact that many sellers have no idea that their horses are going to slaughter to become food. "They're thinking their horse will go to some nice family. But those killer buyers, when they buy at auction, it's just a matter of hours before the horse is slaughtered," he says. Opponents of horse slaughtering claim that many of the horses sold for consumption are young foals as well as old racehorses and "summer camp" ponies. When California voted by referendum in 1998 to ban the slaughter of horses for consumption, Pickens notes that horse theft fell by 34%. "You know they are killing a lot of stolen horses." Independent surveys done in years past indicate that a majority of the public is against horse slaughtering. Because of the lack of publicity the issue has attracted, Pickens calls it "America's dirty little secret."

The Texas oilman, 78, hopes his wife's passion for saving horses turns out as well as her push to get animals out of New Orleans after Katrina. Of the 800 animals airlifted out after the storm, he says over 70% have since been reunited with their owners. If he had been told to leave his dog, Murdock, behind in the storm waters, says Pickens, "I'd yell at them to pitch me an inner tube, and I'd take my chances with Murdock." Is this is a kinder, gentler Pickens than we're used to seeing? He laughs and says, "That side has always been there. Just unrecognized by some people."