Animal rights advocates are preparing for a legal showdown after a federal appeals court this week temporarily banned the slaughter of horses in New Mexico and Missouri, with the activists pledging to continue to fight for the welfare of domestic horses nationwide.
The issue of slaughtering domestic horses has been divisive nationwide, spurring debate in Congress and dividing horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes.
The last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed in 2006, the same year Congress essentially banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections of those facilities. The funding was restored in 2011, prompting several companies nationwide to seek permission to open plants.
Since then, various courts have issued conflicting decisions on whether horses can once again be killed for their meat.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Monday issued a temporary injunction barring the Department of Agriculture from inspecting the plants. That ruling came just days after a federal judge in Albuquerque dismissed a lawsuit by groups that alleged the department failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to the slaughterhouses.
"Horse slaughter is a predatory, inhumane business, and we are pleased to win another round in the courts to block killing of these animals on American soil for export to Italy and Japan. Meanwhile, we are redoubling our efforts in Congress to secure a permanent ban on the slaughter of our horses throughout North America," Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.
Activists say the government approval is premature in light of building momentum in Washington to continue the ban on horse slaughter.
Humane Society officials pointed out that the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees have voted to halt all funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections for fiscal year 2014.
Advocates for horse slaughter say there is a foreign market for the meat, even if it's not a staple on American dinner tables.
Both sides in the battle acknowledged that the latest court order is temporary.
"We don't know how long the appeals process will take," Stephanie Twining, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society, told The Times. "If they don't rule in our favor, that's the end of the road for our battle in federal courts."
But there are other options, she said, such as taking action in state courts and pressing Congress to pull funding from horse slaughterhouse inspections.
"We're not going to give up on this battle," Twining said. "We're going to keep looking for other options."