From developing and testing atomic bombs to searching for small alien bodies and their crashed space ship on the plains near Roswell, New Mexico is well known for headline-grabbing news stories. But perhaps no story has been more emotional and divisive than a pending issue of whether a facility, also near Roswell, will soon reopen to slaughter horses instead of cows and the meat will be sold to foreign buyers for human consumption.
The horse slaughterhouse issue and the Roswell meat processing facility's plans to begin horse slaughter operations in the weeks ahead has ignited passions from the top to the bottom of New Mexico's diverse cultural population and has divided ranchers, farmers, politicians, animal rights activists and average citizens of just about every demographic all across the state.
Valley Meat Company, a family-owned business, sought and was granted federal approval over recent months to remodel its cattle slaughterhouse to accommodate horses, but the task has been an uphill battle all the way as opponents to horse slaughter fought tooth and nail to block the move and filed lawsuits to prevent the issue from going forward.
Now the State of New Mexico, under the direction of horse advocate and Governor Susan Martinez and the State Attorney General's Office, has joined the growing multitude of opposition by joining a lawsuit designed to stop horse slaughter before it gets started. Opponents cite animal rights and food safety issues.
Valley Meat is scheduled to reopen and begin processing horses in about two weeks, but more than one road block that the company must overcome remains before, or even if, reopening becomes a reality.
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The first is a measure put in place by the New Mexico Environment Department who declined a request last week to renew the plant's wastewater discharge permit. The move immediately drew a quick response from plant attorney Blair Dunn who said the move will necessarily require the plant operator to transport waste to a remote facility, a requirement he says is designed to cut into the plant's ability to make a profit.
While the issuance of a permit will not stop the plant from reopening, Blair says the added cost will make it more financially difficult to operate. But the bigger roadblock to the plant's opening is a pending injunction that would stop operations before they get started.
New Mexico AG: food safety is major issue
In addition to objections based upon environmental issues, New Mexico State Attorney General Gary King filed a motion last week saying the "state wants to ensure that commercial operations within its borders are conducted in a safe and responsible manner."
In a June analysis, King ruled that state law "does not allow for production of meat that is chemically tainted under federal regulations."
Horse meat processed by the facility, if their plans are approved, would be sold to foreign buyers where human consumption is allowed and to domestic buyers for use as food at U.S. zoo facilities. The human consumption of horse meat in the U.S. is strictly prohibited by federal law but is common in Mexico, China and a half dozen other countries worldwide.
But U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the green light for the practice of horse slaughter to resume on U.S. soil, citing a strict inspection system of all meat for human consumption, both in domestic and foreign markets. Inspections are rigidly enforced by USDA, and the agency further disagreed with animal rights activists who claimed harmful chemicals administered regularly to horses are undetectable.
The agency approved the Roswell plant's application for horse slaughter inspections under federal law, carefully stating it had no choice based upon current laws and scientific evidence of the harmful consumption of horse meat. But the federal agency was quick to note no horse meat is approved for human consumption on U.S. soil.
Valley Meat Company's attorney was also quick to take issue with King's analysis. According to the NewMexicowatchdog.org website, Dunn said the Attorney General's move is politically motivated.
“Legally, the AG’s office is in left field,” Dunn was quoted by the Watchdog. “It’s just not the threat he’s purporting it to be. This is a publicity stunt. It has to do with a run for governor. Coming from his agricultural background, he should know better … There is not an issue with food safety.”
High profile support against horse slaughter
Joining the fray opposed to horse slaughter is actor Robert Redford and former United Nations Ambassador, U.S. Energy Secretary and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a New Mexico native. This week the duo announced the formation of an animal protection foundation to fight not only the opening of the New Mexico horse slaughter facility but similar plants in Iowa, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Redford and Richardson announced last week the formation of the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife, an animal protection foundation whose first act was to seek to join a federal lawsuit filed by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups to block the planned Aug. 5 opening of Valley Meat and another recently approved horse slaughterhouse in Iowa.
Redford said he has been passionate about horses all of his life, and his love of the animals inspired his famous movies "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Electric Cowboy."
Redford said he and Richardson have both donated seed money to the group but declined to say how much. Dunn, the Roswell plant's attorney, questioned why groups like Redford and Richardson's don't "use their money to actually save animals instead of harassing people in their lawful business?"
While Valley Meat of Roswell was the first to seek and granted approval from USDA to open a horse slaughter facility, a second facility, in Sigourney, Iowa, received the green light from the federal agency a few days later.
“Horse slaughter has no place in our culture,” Redford said in a statement. “It is cruel, inhumane, and perpetuates abuse and neglect of these beloved animals.”
Redford is a New Mexico resident and owns property near Santa Fe.
But while the state, animal rights groups and high profile figures oppose horse slaughter practices, others support it saying it is the most humane method of disposing of unwanted, aged and often abandoned horses that often suffer from starvation or are left to face predators like wolves and mountain lions and die without the ability to defend themselves.
Issue also has many supporters
Many of those favoring legalized and monitored horse slaughter include a few animal activist groups, animal rescue operators and ranchers who say abandoned horses face cruel deaths in the wild or face worse fates at the hands of foreign slaughter houses after being purchased at auction and transferred across international borders to facilities in Mexico and Canada.
In addition, a number of livestock associations, the American Quarter Horse Association and a several Native American tribes support a return to domestic horse slaughter for the same reasons. They argue the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased in the U.S. in 2007.
They also argue that the practice of transporting horses long distances often results in a greater degree of cruelty to the animals, in part because of overcrowded shipping conditions and also because of inhumane methods of destroying the animals in Mexican processing plants.
While there appears to be a major disagreement over the total number of U.S. horses shipped to Mexico and destroyed there, some argue that the number runs well into the hundreds of thousands of animals each year. But regardless whether the processing of horse meat is conducted on U.S. or foreign soil, the issue of whether it is a humane practice continues to attract attention.
Overall an estimated 200 agricultural and horse breeding organizations originally opposed the proposed ban on horse slaughter in the U.S., and more than 300 animal welfare organizations, horse trade groups, prominent horse owners, and corporate leaders supported the ban, illustrating the degree of controversy over the issue.
An Aug. 2 hearing is set on the demand by animal protection groups for a temporary restraining order to prevent the plants from opening and becoming the first horse slaughterhouses to operate domestically on over six years.