Horse slaughter houses dominated the discussion in before a panel called together to discuss animal welfare with journalists who attended the Spring Conference of North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C. April 25 -27.
It was perhaps Sue Wallis, a Wyoming legislator and member of United Organizations of the Horse, who started the trend rolling when she turned to her "other" role as a cowboy poet and recited "A Thousand Pretty Ponies."
But the horse certainly took center stage when she spoke briefly about the inhumanity of eliminating the option of the slaughterhouse as way to dispose of horses that had passed their useful life or whose owners found themselves unable to feed them or sell them.
The result, she said, has been hundreds of animals abandoned to starve in adequate pastures, suffer painful end-of-life conditions or become parts of feral herds.
"We have closed the plants in the United States and as a result unusable, unwanted or unneeded animals have to be trucked out of the country. Just as a recession hit, we took a valuable asset and turned it into a terrific liability."
She said at least 500,000 jobs have been lost and family lives have been destroyed even as suffering for horses has increased.
Panelist Kay Johnson Smith with the Animal Agriculture Alliance spoke briefly about the need for farmers and ranchers to help make it understood that they do care for their animals and concentrate on taking the best possible care of them.
"We are blessed with a plentiful and affordable food supply," she said. "We cannot afford for food production to move offshore. It is a matter of natural security."
Tim Amlow of American Certified Humane spoke about his organization, which provides a way for producers to obtain a seal that tells consumers their animals were raised under humane conditions.
Gail Golab of the American Veterinary Medical Association also was a panel member and spoke of the role of veterinarians in assuring that farm animals are comfortable land well cared for.
She said eliminating the systems that now exist in the interest of improving the welfare of animals would result in behavior patterns that would not necessarily give the animals better lives and could make their lives both worse and short.
"We need to be aware of the good and the bad in the system and move to improve it with with an awareness of what happens when you switch systems."
The final member of the panel was Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, who defended his organization's attacks on animal agriculture before a roomful of journalists who were both knowledgeable about, and defensive of, animal agriculture.
Shapiro compared horses to dogs and cats, saying most Americans consider horses companion animals and said an unwanted horse should be disposed of in the same way as an unwanted dog or cat.
Shapiro did not answer a question on how much of the money it collects HSUS spends on improving animal welfare. Instead he launched into a speech about how HSUS videos have spotlighted abuses of animals in traditional agricultural situations and how his organization has won victories in state legislatures.
He did not bring up or directly address the advertising campaign of HumaneWatch.org which cited the Securities and Exchange Commission filings of HSUS, which reveals that HSUS spends less than one half of one percent of its intake on hands-on care for animals.
The debate over animal agriculture is likely to continue in the years ahead as HSUS pushes for California-style limitations on agriculture and the industry fights back with Ohio-like panels of agriculture producers and regulators who set up standards more agreeable to the industry.