A federal judge on Friday cleared the way for horse slaughterhouses to resume operating in the U.S. as early as next week.
U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo in Albuquerque threw out a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups that alleged the Department of Agriculture failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, New Mexico, and an Iowa company to slaughter horses for human consumption.
The decision ends, for now, a two-year battle by Valley Meat to open the slaughterhouse.
The debate over a return to domestic horse slaughter has been an emotional one that centers on whether horses are livestock or companion animals and what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation, particularly in the drought-stricken West. Supporters say it is better to slaughter unwanted horses in regulated domestic plants than to ship them to sometimes inhumane plants in Mexico.
The issue has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes.
The plants would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the U.S. since 2007, when Texas and Illinois banned the slaughter of horses for human consumption – effectively shutting down the only plants in the US. Congress eliminated funding for federal inspections of plants in 2006 but restored that funding in 2011. The Department of Agriculture did not approve the new permits for horse slaughter plants until this summer. [Editor's Note: The original story contained factual errors about how and when the practice of horse slaughter was stopped in the US.]
The companies don't expect to sell horse meat in the US, but want to ship horse meat to countries where it is consumed by humans or used as animal feed.
Valley Meat owner Rick De Los Santos and his attorney, Blair Dunn, admitted they were surprised when the ruling came down, hours after a temporary restraining order that barred the companies from opening in August had expired.
"I thought the court was headed in a different direction on this since," Dunn said. "I am very, very happy to be wrong."
The Humane Society, joined by the state of New Mexico, filed an almost immediate appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
De Los Santos estimated it would be seven to 10 days before he was up and running. But Dunn said Rains Natural Meats, in Gallatin, Missouri, was poised to open as early as Monday.
A third company, Responsible Transportation, which was started in Sigourney, Iowa, by three recent college graduates, abandoned its plan to process horses and converted to cattle after the restraining order was issued in August.
[UPDATE Jan. 22, 2014: The latest federal budget, signed by President Obama on Jan. 17, eliminates USDA funding for horse slaughterhouse inspections.]
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