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Thursday, May 20, 2004 01:29 pm

Bo knows

Bo Derek (left) speaks up for horses at a press conference Tuesday
Photo by Todd Spivak

Actress Bo Derek side-saddled into Springfield this week to promote legislation that would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption.

The Hollywood horse lover's plea came just as Cavel International -- Illinois' lone equine slaughterhouse, based in DeKalb -- sets to reopen after a fire shut it down in March 2002.

Derek testified Wednesday before the Senate Executive Committee in support of a bill sponsored by Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, to make such slaughterhouses illegal.

"The whole process is really gruesome," said Derek, 47, during a press conference Tuesday at the historic Pasfield House.

The sultry star of 10, the Blake Edwards film that catapulted her to fame in 1979, has traveled to cities across the country, including the nation's capital, to raise awareness on the issue.

Derek's love of horses spawned her 2002 memoir, Riding Lessons: Everything That Matters In Life I Learned From Horses. She was recently named spokeswoman for National Horse Protection Coalition.

While banned in most U.S. states, Japan and several European countries consider horsemeat a gourmet delicacy, as reported in an Illinois Times cover story [Pete Sherman, "Neighsayers," Nov. 6, 2003].

Apart from the Cavel corporation, headquartered in Belgium, there are just two other horse slaughterhouses in the U.S., both based in Texas. Last year, those two killed some 50,000 horses for consumption overseas.

James Tucker, general manager of Cavel, calls Derek overly sentimental about the companion animals. He also dismisses her claim that the horses are treated inhumanely, saying his slaughterhouse, first opened in 1987, follows strict federal guidelines.

"We render the brain dead instantly almost 100 percent of the time," Tucker says. "When you kill an animal it's natural that it thrashes around after it's dead."

If allowed to open, the Cavel plant will kill as many as 100 horses a day, he says.

Despite all the media attention Derek's local appearances have brought to the issue, legislators say Cullerton's bill is unlikely to pass. Similar legislation sponsored by Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, failed during a House vote in March.

Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Sycamore, whose district includes the Cavel plant, plans to vote nay.

Pritchard calls the bill anti-business, as the slaughterhouse employs 40 people, provides the local government with $90,000 in property taxes, and pumps $1.1 million into the economy.

But, perhaps more importantly, Pritchard says the anti-horse slaughter bill unfairly limits diversity.

"It's a very emotional argument on both sides," he says. "But this is not about actresses coming forward to show their passion.

"It's a matter of choice. It's just like some people who prefer chicken, while others prefer pork."

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