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DES MOINES, Iowa — An Iowa plant could be the first in the nation to resume horse slaughter after a seven-year lapse, resurrecting mixed views among horse owners about the controversial practice.
Depending on the outcome of a federal court hearing Friday in New Mexico, Responsible Transportation in Sigourney, Iowa, could begin horse slaughter operations as early as Monday.
"That is the hope," said Keaton Walker, president of Responsible Transportation, located in an old Louis Rich turkey-processing plant. "A lot of things have to go right."
A lawsuit by animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, contends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to conduct the proper environmental reviews before issuing permits to slaughter horses.
If the groups' motion for an injunction fails, the Sigourney company will begin processing equine meat for domestic zoos and for human consumption abroad.
The news divides Iowa's horse owners and sellers. People who favor slaughter and those who oppose it both say they have horses' best interest at heart.
"It's an issue that's very emotional to people," said Bruce Paynter, president of the Iowa Horse Council. "I'm all over the map on my own feelings about it."
Some associations of horse owners and veterinarians, as well as livestock sellers, say federally overseen slaughter is the best way to alleviate overpopulation of unwanted horses. Domestic slaughter, they say, is more humane than transporting horses to Canada or Mexico for slaughter. And it's a financial benefit for owners who can't afford the cost of euthanizing and rendering or burying a horse, which can range from $200 to $600.
But opponents say the practice is inhumane, and that horses are not raised to be food and are not safe for human consumption because of the drugs they're administered. And many people who view horses solely as pets and companions simply can't stomach the idea of slaughtering horses.
"It's sort of like, we've bred them, it's a member of our family," said Deb Leech, a horse owner and president of the Iowa Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. "I just couldn't do it."
Bruce Wagman, attorney for the animal-rights groups, said he is optimistic the federal judge will grant an injunction.
"I'm certain that we have the right argument and we're correct in our position" that horse slaughter operations require environmental review, he said.
A poll conducted for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in May found that 71 percent of Iowans oppose slaughter, and three in four Iowans oppose having a slaughterhouse in their community.
Jeff Johnson, Sigourney city councilman and head of the Sigourney Area Development Corp., said that while some residents have raised questions about the plant, most feedback has been positive, largely because of the company's promise of 25 to 30 new jobs.
"This is an agricultural community," Johnson said, "and they understand the processing of animals and meat."
Congress banned horse slaughter in 2006 and lifted the ban in 2011. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture opposes horse slaughter, the agency said it was obligated to issue permits after being sued by Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M.
"The administration has requested Congress to reinstate the ban on horse slaughter," a USDA statement said. "Until Congress acts, the department must continue to comply with current law."
Responsible Transportation was the second company awarded a grant of inspection, on July 2. The company says it would process about 40 horses a day, and annually would handle about 5 percent of the 170,000 horses now being transported from the U.S. to Canada and Mexico. The horses to be slaughtered at the plant will be low-value horses bought at auction or unwanted horses brought in by owners, Walker said.
Lynn Lyman of Aplington Livestock Sales said that after horse sales, her company often winds up with leftover horses that are worth little. Ads for free horses are common on Craigslist and Facebook, and she's heard frequent stories about horse sellers or farmers who find that people have dropped off unwanted horses on their properties overnight.
After the 2006 ban, Lyman said, prices for horses plummeted. But when news began circulating about slaughter resuming in the U.S., prices jumped about 5 cents per pound. If Responsible Transportation opens next week, she expects prices to steadily climb, possibly even flooding the market.
"Everyone's going to start trying to get rid of horses now," Lyman said.
But Maggi Moss, a former prosecutor and a racehorse owner, said there are better options than slaughter. She's a founder of Hope After Racing Thoroughbreds, a rescue league. She said organizations like hers can help owners of unwanted horses find second homes.
"What's really sad is that this is one state that doesn't even need (slaughter)," Moss said. "We've got plenty of homes, plenty of places to put horses here. It's strictly for greed and blood money, and there is no need for it."
Last weekend, apparent arsonists damaged the refrigeration system at New Mexico's Valley Meat Co., pushing back its opening date. Responsible Transportation's Walker said his company has "developed a security plan to hopefully prevent such acts."
Carol Griglione, Iowa state director of the Humane Society, hopes the injunction will prevent the Iowa company from being the first horse slaughter plant to open.
"Of all the things Iowa is first in the nation of, I am confident that most Iowans would not want to be first for this," Griglione said.