The battle over the opening of the nation's first domestic horse slaughterhouse since a government ban six years ago has ramped up as a company in Roswell, N.M., moves closer to reinstituting the practice.
Activists throughout the West say they are preparing for a public-relations battle if the owners of Valley Meat Co. receive a federal permit to begin killing horses.
"This is going to happen and we need to stop it for so many reasons -- moral, healthwise, economic, the whole ball of wax," animal advocate Yvette Dobbie told the Los Angeles Times. "If they move ahead and open this plant, there will be a huge protest presence at that facility."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week warned that the Roswell plant, which has been fighting for more than a year for permission to slaughter horses, will open soon, unless Congress acts.
"We are going to do this, and I would imagine that it would be done relatively soon," he told the Associated Press. "It will open unless Congress restores the ban on horse slaughter that they had in place. If that doesn't happen, then we are duty-bound to do what needs to be done to allow that plant to begin processing."
Rick De Los Santos, the owner of the New Mexico facility, sued the Department of Agriculture last year, claiming the agency was stalling in its review of the application due to public pressure. The lawsuit charged that the delays had cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. The USDA reinspected the plant last week.
De Los Santos has has not returned repeated calls from The Times for comment.
The horse slaughter issue has also played out in Washington, where President Obama is at odds with Congress over the issue. The administration's recent budget proposal eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would effectively reinstate a ban on the practice.
Congress eliminated such funding in 2006, which forced a shutdown of domestic slaughter facilities, but restored the funding in 2011. That move prompted several companies nationwide, including Valley Meat, to seek permission to open plants.
This week, the battle to prevent the opening got personal when New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, sent a letter to Vilsack, saying “it saddens me that thousands of horses, a majestic fixture of the American West, could be methodically and inhumanely put to death in my home state.”
Grisham's letter, reviewed by The Times, also cited a series of past violations at the plant, which previously slaughtered cattle, including a USDA notice of inspection last year "for violating requirements for the humane handling of animals." Grisham also said that De Los Santos has failed to disclose in two of three applications with the Department of Agriculture that he has felony convictions, as the law requires.
In granting inspection for the first horse slaughter plant in years, she warned, the USDA must ensure a high standard for quality sand safety.
"Unfortunately," Grisham wrote, "Valley Meat's past behavior suggests that it does not adhere to such a standard."