The Truth About the Amish

by Larkin Vonalt



Author’s Note June 11, 2014

Please note that this piece was written two and a half years ago. The comments are moderated. This is my own private blog, not your soapbox. I do allow for differences of opinion but if you tell me that I should be ashamed or that you’re disgusted or that this is full of lies or that it’s the most repulsive thing you’ve seen on the internet, don’t expect your comment to see the light of day. Thanks for understanding. 


photo by N. Bourne

This horse is dead. He worked hard every day of his life and when his owner thought he could do  better with a new horse, he hauled this Belgian to New Holland, Pennsylvania, and sold him directly to slaughter. It didn’t matter if there was someone at the auction looking for a draft horse, or a rescue wanting to give him well-earned pasture rest– this horse never made it to the sale ring. Instead, they slapped a white USDA sticker with a bar code to his back and sealed his fate.

What became of this gentle giant, bound for slaughter?  If he was lucky, he went Canada, where he  was killed with a captive bolt or .22 bullet before butchering. (Because he was a large fellow, and apparently sound, and because the Canadian customs demand it, it’s likely that all the horses on that trip arrived at their final destination in reasonable condition. )

For the horses whose luck has truly run out,  they are shipped 2000 miles to a Mexican slaughter-house. Shipped in mixed lots, some are dead on arrival, or sick, or badly injured. Some abattoirs there do have a captive bolt gun, it fires a mechanical rod into the brain, instead of a bullet.  But the method most often used is a small Puntilla knife. Lisa Sandberg, in a 2007 story for the Houston Chronicle, noted that it is a point of pride to be able to drop the horse with one quick stab that severs the spinal cord. But too often, as on the day she was there, the Apuñalador is inept:  she watched as a roan mare was stabbed 13 times along the back before she fell. The horses are then hoisted into the air by a rear leg, paralyzed but still alive, their throats are cut and they bleed to death.

When equine slaughter facilities were closed in this country, the number of horses shipped across the US border to Mexico increased more than 300 percent.

Knowing this, it’s hard not to support the return of equine slaughter to the United States. I’d much prefer it if there was no need or demand for horses to be killed for their meat. Yes, they are livestock, but our relationship with horses is more complicated than that. If we could mandate and insure a dignified and humane death for each horse by legalizing and stringently regulating slaughter in our own country, and closing the door for export to Mexico– then we could at least stop that part of the nightmare.

But right now, that’s what the future held for this big gelding: a trip to Canada, or one to Mexico– with no possible chance of reprieve. No one could save him, because the seller decided to get a guaranteed price (perhaps less) by selling directly to the kill buyer than taking their chances in the auction ring.  Who does that to their horses? Who steals from them their very, very last chance?

The Amish, that’s who.

It’s not just plow horses the Amish consign to this terrible fate every single Monday all year long. It’s their buggy horses too, Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, Morgans. Often underweight, scarred by ill-fitting harness, lame from something awful, or just lame from a stone bruise.  Frequently their forelocks have been shaved, so as not to cause the farmer inconvenience with the overcheck bridle– never mind that the forelock is invaluable in aiding the horse’s comfort in fly season. They bring in a horse whose stamina is falling off, or one that can’t go so fast anymore, trotting mile after mile on pavement. No point in feeding an animal that can’t pull its own weight, and theirs as well.  (New Holland sells other kinds of livestock too– pigs and sheep and cattle.  Notable among these were some Amish-owned Holsteins, their udders swollen as big as medicine balls, dragging on the ground between their legs.)

Outside the auction house, all day long, Amish buggy horses stand tethered on pavement. They have no water. Often the check rein (which keeps the horse’s head up) is left fastened. They are still in traces, bearing the weight of the buggy shafts. All day they stand like this, and then stiff and miserable, are expected to trot briskly home in the failing light. When they are too old, or too tired, or used up they will be discarded here and sent directly to slaughter.

Oh, the bucolic simple life of the Amish! How charming the plain folk, the tidy farms, the children in straw hats and dark bonnets, the hard-working, the humble and the meek. What a load of hogwash. You want adjectives for the Amish? What about shrewd, selfish, oppressive, and cruel?

In 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, took ten Amish schoolgirls, age 6 to 13, hostage in their school in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He let all of the adults and the boys leave the school, and then shot all of the girls and himself. Five of the girls survived. The Amish community made national headlines by declaring their immediate and complete forgiveness of the gunman and support for his family. One can’t help but wonder if they’d have been so quick to turn the other cheek if it had been their sons who had been lined up and executed.

Donald Kraybill, a scholar of Amish life (who went on to sell his book about the atrocity, Amish Grace : How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy to Lifetime Television for a made-for-tv movie) said the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance “does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.”  The Amish have made “forgiveness” part of their stock in trade.

I haven’t forgiven Elmer Zimmerman.

Elmer Zimmerman is an Amish farmer, also in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He and his brother Ammon operated a large commercial dog breeding operation. During a state inspection of the kennel by the Pennsylvania State Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement in July 2008,  the two brothers were cited for extreme heat, insufficient bedding and wire kennel floors that the dogs’ feet could fall through. In addition they were instructed to have 39 dogs examined and treated for fly bites and flea infestation. The brothers chose not to comply with the state’s recommendations. Instead they shot and killed 80 dogs. 80 dogs that died without a name, without a kind word, without a comforting hand. 80 dogs that died terrified.

“The decision by commercial breeders to kill healthy dogs instead of paying to repair a kennel and seek veterinary care is alarming and will likely outrage many people,” state Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff commented.  “Until our state’s outdated dog law is changed, kennel owners may continue to kill their dogs for any reason they see fit, even if it is simply to save money.”  (Pennsylvania HB 2525 which had been in the works at the time of the Zimmerman’s rampage, was passed in October 2008, requiring that dogs may only be euthanized by a veterinarian.)

In Lancaster county alone, there are more than 300 commercial dog breeders, some of them with more than 500 dogs, and the great majority of them are Amish-owned. Up until November 2009, when then Governor Ed Rendell signed into law new anti-cruelty measures, Amish-owned breeding dogs were subject to primitive de-barking by having a metal rod shoved down their throats, often breaking the jaw and lower teeth in the process.  Farmers were docking tails and cutting off dewclaws when puppies were several weeks old. Ears were being cropped with kitchen shears. Caesareans were being performed on whelping bitches without benefit of anesthesia or sedation.

While the rights of responsible individuals to breed dogs should be protected and supported, no one has the right to subject dogs to neglect, abuse and outright torture.

The Amish are not educated beyond the 8th grade. They are entirely patriarchal. They sell the “product” of “Amishness” but it is false. Despite their evident piety, they choose to ignore the teachings of Jesus that aren’t convenient to their lifestyle. Do they not see themselves in Proverbs 12:10?  “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, areas of Ohio, Indiana and fifteen other states with a significant Amish population see a fair amount of income from Amish-related tourism. There is often an implied, if not an explicit reluctance to tarnish the image of the noble, gentle, Plain Folk. Law enforcement may turn a blind eye to a victim that goes to great effort to report a crime in the community. (One girl’s mother had all of her daughter’s teeth pulled out after the girl used a neighbor’s telephone to contact a battered women’s shelter to tell them she was being raped by her brothers.) State departments of education allow for the Amish to stop attending school at age 13. The Amish are expected to police themselves, but their system of crime and punishment is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The accused confesses and is forgiven, the victim is punished.

The Amish are a cult. But because they are picturesque and we are nostalgic for earlier, simpler times, we not only accept their eccentricities, we celebrate them. We buy their faceless dolls, their dark quilts, their cheese and chairs. We buy their myth.

It doesn’t take much looking to find one account after another as to how cruel the Amish are to their children, their cash crop of puppies, their exhausted, broken, beaten and fearful horses. How an animal is treated is surely the measure of a man, and it’s not surprising that the problems in the Amish community extend to child abuse, battered wives, rape and incest.  (An extensive article in the January 2005 issue of Legal Affairs describes those problems in chilling and absolutely sickening detail. ) Isn’t this what you might expect though, from men who condemn their loyal servant  to a terrible death in exchange for a few hundred dollars?  Surely no less is to be expected from someone who denies them that one last tender mercy.

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 3:19