Horses destined for slaughter get second chance at life after Knoxville crash

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - On October 24, a flatbed trailer carrying horses crashed into a semi truck in Knoxville.

Kelly Smith, the owner of Omega Horse Rescue, said the trailer belonged to Rotz Livestock, which buys horses at auction to sell for slaughter in Canada. Smith said her rescue regularly works to save horses from the company.

Of the 31 horses in the trailer, Smith said two had to be euthanized at the scene of the accident, eight died at the scene and 21 horses were loaded on to another trailer and shipped to Rotz Livestock's facility in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. After the accident Smith said she reached out to Rotz Livestock to see if she could help any of the horses, but was told "no."

Related: Horses euthanized after Knox County crash

Smith said for the next couple of days she worried about the horses and thought that they had already been shipped to slaughter. Then, a couple days after the accident she went to pick up another horse she was rescuing from Rotz Livestock.

"When I walked in they told me that the horses where there and I had a few hours to make up my mind and if I were taking one I had to take all of them," said Smith. "Of course to me, taking all 21 horses, that is a major undertaking, but how could you leave one behind? So, I had a few hours to find a place to take 21 horses and hope and pray that this will all work for the benefit of these animals in the long run."

Smith said Rotz Livestock sold her the horses for the amount they paid for them at auction. She worked to raise $13,000 to purchase the horses and find a place for the horses stay.

"One of them had to be euthanized from that 20 group and they just looked shell-shocked. I guess I would compare it to somebody who had been through an auto-accident, just the shock from the ordeal they had just been through and they looked, most of them, pretty sad and depressed," said Smith. "They had been sold at auction, they went through a horrific crash and then once again, they were loaded on to a semi to come from Tennessee to Pennsylvania and they were unloaded at the kill buyer's facility, so one could only imagine what they were thinking at that point."

The majority of the horses were taken to Brandywine Vet in Honeybrook, Pennsylvania. Smith said the horses had upper-respiratory infections, wounds and emotional trauma after the accident.

"The night that we started picking them up and taking them to the vets, they had formed a bond with each other at the facility and I'm sure, during that trailer ride," said Smith. "They were crying for each other as each horse was coming off the trailer and it was actually really heartbreaking because they wanted to make sure that their friend was there with them."

After the horses are nursed back to health, Smith plans to put them up for adoption in Pennsylvania area. However, her biggest hurdle is paying for vet bills, which are around $1,000 per horse for the first month.

"They are getting a second chance at life and you can't ask for anything more than that," said Smith.

How to help: Donate to Omega Horse Rescue

Horse slaughter controversy still rages

Nearly a decade after the last three horse slaughterhouses closed in the United States, the trafficking of American horses for slaughter continues and the controversy burns as fiercely as ever.

Since 2007, almost a million American horses have been sent to Mexico and Canada to be killed, butchered and exported to Europe and Asia, where local palettes find the meat a delicacy. Proponents say the roughly 130,000 or more horses exported each year represent an unwanted domestic surplus, and that slaughter, even in Mexico where it can be less than humane, is better than neglect and abandonment at home.

"I think that some of the people believe in horse slaughter as an answer to getting rid of unwanted horses," said Smith.

Smith said that's not the case. In fact, she says of the horses rescued, she had a couple teenagers, but most of them are younger. She said the youngest horse is only three years old.

"They are young, healthy, beautiful animals who have their whole lives in front of them," said Smith. "That is what the kill-buyers generally want is young healthy, fat horses, because they will obviously bring more money by pound than an older horse that is not as in good shape as a younger one."

Omega Horse Rescue has been working with buyers like Rotz Livestock for years. She says the practice is controversial in some way.

"There are some rescue who don't believe in helping these horses," said Smith. "then there are rescue like mine and there are other people who are really devoted to these animals and we are their last hope.

Smith said she feels like if she doesn't help the animals, nobody will.

"Unfortunately we lose a lot of horses to the slaughter pipe-line, but for the horses we can save, it is making a different to them."

Repeated legislative attempts to halt the practice have failed since 2006, when the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act was first introduced. A bill pending in Washington takes a different approach.

HR 1942 would declare horse meat unsafe for human consumption because of drugs given to the animals, and also prohibit transportation of horses for human consumption.

If passed, the bill, now lingering in committee, would end horse slaughter. However, some animal welfare groups say they are already struggling with too many unwanted horses and the prospect of taking in 100,000 or more new animals year after year is alarming.

"It's strictly an animal welfare issue for us," said Ward Stutz of the American Quarter Horse Association, which, along with the Farm Bureau of America and others opposes HR 1942.

Still the Humane Society, ASPCA and other animal welfare groups hope to push the bill forward.

"Yes there would be disarray and chaos, but the horses would be better off. If we quit incentivizing over-breeding and discarding horses, the market would adjust to the circumstances," said ASPCA vice president Nancy Perry.

Rotz Livestock crash in 2013

"Gruesome" was the word Chris and John Chordas used to describe a crash involving Rotz Livestock in May 2013.

The Chordas brothers said have towed many accidents, but they had never dealt with the type of carnage that awaited them after a truck hauling 30 horses caught fire on an upstate New York highway. The fire happened on Interstate 81 in the town of Lisle, when the tractor trailer burst into flames. Charred carcasses were piled deep inside the truck's 53-foot-long aluminum trailer, part of which was melted by the intense flames.

"It was a shame they had to die like that, no chance of getting out," Chris Chordas said.

The brothers, owners of John's Body Shop in Binghamton, said their crew worked more than seven hours using construction equipment to drag the carcasses from the trailer and load them into metal containers that were hauled from the scene by garbage trucks. The containers remained at an undisclosed location Thursday until the truck owner's insurance company arranges to have the carcasses properly disposed, the brothers said.

State police said the truck was hauling 30 horses from Shippensburg, Pa., to a rendering plant in Massueville, Quebec, near Montreal. Investigators said a leak in the truck's passenger-side fuel tank ignited the fire, which quickly spread to the trailer.

Troopers said the truck driver, 56-year-old Clarence Phelps of Watertown, tried to save the horses but was unsuccessful. The Chordas brothers said they were told by people at the scene that Phelps narrowly escaped being hit by an exploding tire and had to be pulled from the burning vehicle by another truck driver who stopped to help.

Police said the truck is owned by Bruce Rotz Jr. of Shippensburg. A man answering the phone at Rotz livestock hauling company said no one would be commenting to the media.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

More Stories

Meet the Team

Don't Miss

Latest Local News

Video Center