Rick de los Santos wants to reopen an animal slaughter business that's been banned in the U.S. for years. Along the way, he's also opened a can of worms.
The Roswell, N.M., meat company owner sued the federal government last week, alleging that officials ignored his application to resume domestic horse slaughter for food because the practice had become an emotional political issue throughout the West.
After waiting a year for permits, De los Santos, 52, says he's using the courts to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse since 2007.
"I've submitted all the paperwork and have been told all along 'Oh, it won't be long now,'" said De los Santos, who owns Valley Meat Co. "I followed all their guidelines. I put more than $100,000 in upgrades and additions on my facilities to handle equine slaughter. And then the government comes back and tells me, 'We can't give you the permits. This horse issue has turned into a political game.'
"So what else do you do? I figured it was time to go to court."
The slaughterhouse owner, whose business had been slaughtering cattle, is also suing the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue and Animal Protection of New Mexico, accusing those groups of defamation and causing loss of income during the dispute.
The dispute over killing horses has raged for years. Equine advocates have accused the Bureau of Land Management of failing to protect tens of thousands of mustangs that wander government-owned land in 10 Western states. Many of the animals are corralled each year and sent to long-term holding facilities. And reports surfaced this fall that the BLM was knowingly selling wild horses for slaughter, an outcome banned annually by Congress. The agency is investigating the claim.
In 2007, the last three domestic slaughterhouses in the United States were closed. Since then, unwanted domestic animals have been shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
Many animal protection groups and public officials were outraged at the idea of resuming domestic horse slaughter, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, who has opposed the plan.
Many animal advocates says horse slaughter has no business in the U.S.
"Everything is wrong with this idea," said Sally Summers, founder of Horse Power, a Nevada-based equine advocacy group. "The economy has done just fine without this type of slaughter. And these plants are toxic to the community. They hurt these towns; they don't help them."
Summers said that many of the drugs that U.S. owners give their horses to ensure longevity and peak performance are carcinogenic. "This stuff gets into the water table through the drains," she said. "It's a nightmare. This man is smoking a pipe and I don't know what's in it."
The USDA declined to comment last week on the pending litigation. The agency has until January to respond to the suit, filed in federal court in late October.
De los Santos says his lawsuit will show that a recent "marked change in cooperation" by the USDA is due to pressure the government is receiving on the horse issue.
Some support a return to domestic horse slaughter. The American Quarter Horse Assn. says a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress essentially banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased. Most animal advocacy groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline that often takes horses to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
Last year, 68,429 horses were shipped to Mexico and 64,652 to Canada, according to USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to ending horse slaughter. That compares with total exports of 37,884 of the animals in 2006.
De los Santos says he is tired of sitting in southern New Mexico and watching countless truckloads of horses en route to Mexico for slaughter.
"I've seen 130,000 horses a year on their way to Mexico — they go right through our backyard — and I wanted to tap into the market," he said. "I could have hired 100 people by now. Everyone in our community agrees we need this type of service. And I'm tired of waiting."
De los Santos says he is ready to start killing horses humanely.
"Everything that has four legs that walks can be slaughtered the same way, but we're ready to do this humanely," he said. "We've upgraded our knocking chutes for giving them that lethal hit."
He says he can't understand why everyone is so upset. Americans kill cows; why not horses?
"My wife says horse is on the menu all over Europe, but the moment you mention horse slaughter in the U.S., you've got a problem," he says.