ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A federal judge in Albuquerque is expected to decide Friday whether companies in New Mexico and Iowa can begin legally slaughtering horses, for the first time in the country since it was effectively banned in 2006.
A hearing is scheduled on a request by The Humane Society of the United States and others for a restraining order to block Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., and Responsible Transportation in Sigourney, Iowa, from opening their slaughterhouses as planned on Monday.
The groups sued the Department of Agriculture in June after it issued permits to the companies, which would be the first to legally slaughter horses in the country since Congress effectively banned the practice in 2006. The ban was lifted in 2011, renewing an emotional and divisive national debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions, and how best to deal with untold thousands of unwanted, abandoned and often starving horses.
Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., has been at the forefront of the fight, pushing for more than a year for permission to convert its cattle plant into a horse slaughterhouse. Valley Meat owner Rick De Los Santos says he, his company and family have also become the target of numerous violent threats. Last weekend, he said, arsonists hit his plant, damaging its refrigeration unit. His attorney advised him to stay away from the Friday hearing.
After more than a year of delays and a lawsuit by Valley Meat, the Department of Agriculture in June gave the company the go-ahead to begin slaughtering horses. USDA officials said they were legally obligated to issue the permits, even though the Obama administration opposes horse slaughter and is seeking to reinstate the congressional ban.
Another permit was approved a few days later for Responsible Transportation. Both planned to open on Monday according to their attorney, Blair Dunn.
Meat from the slaughterhouses would be exported for human consumption and for use as zoo and other animal food.
The move has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation.
Some Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Yakama nations, are among those pushing to let the companies open. They say the exploding horse populations on their reservations are trampling and overgrazing rangelands, decimating forage resources for cattle and causing widespread environmental damage. The Navajo Nation, that nation's largest Indian reservation, estimates there are 75,000 horses on its land, including many it says are dehydrated and starving after years of drought.
On the other side, actor Robert Redford, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King are among those who strongly oppose a return to domestic horse slaughter, citing the horse's iconic role as a companion animal in the West.
"Horse slaughter has no place in our culture," Redford said in a statement last week in announcing formation of a foundation that has joined the fight. "It is cruel, inhumane, and perpetuates abuse and neglect of these beloved animals. We must oppose it with all of our might. We need to ensure horses have safe and kind treatment during their lives and are afforded the peaceful and dignified end they deserve."
Supporters of domestic slaughter point to a June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows cases of horse abuse and abandonment on a steady rise since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.
They also cite USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance that show the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, with many of shipped thousands of miles south of the border to unregulated and inhumane facilities. They say it is better to slaughter the horses in regulated and humane domestic facilities than to let them starve or be shipped to Mexico.
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