HITCHCOCK, TEXAS — It's a state that's home to every seventh horse in the US, a place synonymous with the larger-than-life myth of the American cowboy, more comfortable in the saddle than just about anywhere else.
But there's another side - a nasty one, animal-rights advocates say - to the bond between man and beast in Texas. Each day, hundreds of horses are slaughtered here and sent to the tables of Europe and Japan, where the lean meat is considered a delicacy.
The battle between supporters and opponents of the practice is coming to a head. Last week, the Texas House of Representatives approved legalizing an industry that's been skirting the law for more than five decades. But in Washington, the US Congress is considering a bill that would ban horse slaughter for human consumption and close the last two slaughterhouses in the country, both in north Texas.
Meanwhile, a federal court in Fort Worth will consider a lawsuit brought by the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office after animal-rights activists discovered a 1949 Texas law that outlaws the killing of horses for human consumption. District Court Judge Terry Means has allowed the slaughterhouses - Dallas Crown Packing of Kaufman and Beltex Corp. of Fort Worth - to continue operating while the case proceeds.
As the dispute carries on in courts and legislative chambers, both sides bring a passion that reflects the special place horses hold in the history and legend of the American West.
"Horses are not like cows and pigs and goats," says Jerry Finch, founder of Habitat for Horses, a Hitchcock-based group dedicated to rescuing abused or neglected horses. "They're like pets, and the idea of eating them is repulsive."
America's love affair with the horse deepened in the 1800s when cowboys on horseback roamed the western frontier, embodying America's independent spirit.
"Horses have always played a different role in the United States," says Chris Heyde, a policy analyst for the Society for Animal Protective Legislation in Washington, D.C.
Nowhere is this more true than in Texas, home to one million of the seven million horses in the US. Last year, however, the two Texas plants killed 42,000 horses and shipped the meat overseas where it's made into sausages, steaks, and sashimi.
Many of these horses, opponents say, are stolen. "Slaughter has provided a very lucrative cash grab for people," says Mr. Heyde.
Recognizing the problem, California passed a law in 1998 outlawing the transportation of horses out of state for the purposes of slaughter. Since then, horse theft there has dropped by 50 percent.
Across the US, constant pressure on the industry, along with foreign competition, has forced the closure of many slaughterhouses. Since 1990, a dozen plants have closed and the number of slaughtered horses has been reduced by more than 300,000 per year.
"Texas has become an island unto itself," says Skip Trimble, a Dallas attorney working with the Texas Humane Legislation Network to close down the two plants, which are both European owned.
He says the process is similar to cattle slaughter, but crueler. Because horses are not used to being herded, they tend to throw their heads around in the chute, often eluding the stun guns that are supposed to render them unconscious.
Supporters counter that if the two US plants, which last year grossed $39 million, are shut down, rival exporters in Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Mexico will simply kill more horses in far worse circumstances.
"I'm not saying that horse slaughter is the most fantastic thing in the world, but I'm trying to figure out what would be a reasonable alternative," says Temple Grandin, an expert on humane treatment of livestock. "You've got to make sure you don't export the problem where it will become a bigger mess."
Dr. Grandin is concerned that abuse and neglect could increase if there were no longer a legal place to dispose of unwanted horses. She spent time in the Dallas Crown plant several years ago and says they were "doing a good job."
The facility was clean and met high standards. But she takes issue with the industry's method of transport.
Most buyers use cattle trailers to carry their loads to the plants, and about 90 percent come from out of state. Horses are jammed into small spaces, unable to stand, and many thrash around, injuring themselves and other horses en route. Recognizing the problem, the United States Department of Agriculture pushed through a law - taking effect in 2007 - that bans that type of transportation.
It was in just such a transport that the founder of Habitat for Horses came across Pete, a quarter horse crippled by a barbed-wire fence. He was being led up a trailer ramp when his buyers realized they didn't have enough space. They had purchased 40 horses that day - to be delivered to the slaughterhouse - and the trailer could hold only 38.
"I'll take him," Mr. Finch recalls saying, slapping down $50 and saving the horse's life.
Today, a mended Pete munches on pasture grass at the Habitat for Horses ranch, while his owner continues to scour horse auctions.
Until slaughterhouses are banned, he'll count his victories one at a time.