ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A New Mexico meat company that wants to resume domestic horse slaughter for food is suing the federal government, alleging inaction on its application was driven by emotional political debates and has cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Valley Meat Co. is seeking to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse in more than five years.
The company and its owner, Rick de los Santos, have also sued the Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico, accusing the organizations of defamation during a yearlong dispute that has reignited debate over the humane treatment of horses and how best to control the nation's exploding equine population.
Perhaps the most divisive question is whether the noble, iconic animals that played a key role in the settling of much of America are livestock or pets.
The USDA declined comment this week on the pending litigation. The agency has until January to respond to the suit filed in federal court in late October.
Animal Protection of New Mexico also declined comment. Humane Society officials did not immediately return a phone call Thursday.
Bruce Wagman, an attorney for Front Range Equine, called the lawsuit "completely false and frivolous," and said the group did nothing wrong.
"We aren't even sure what it says," he added.
The dispute began a year ago, de los Santos said, after Congress removed what effectively had become a ban on horse slaughter in the U.S. His cattle slaughter business had dropped off as area ranchers sold their herds because of drought, so he talked to the USDA about converting his slaughterhouse to handle horses.
He said he was encouraged to do so but told he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to get the proper permits.
He said he shuttered his business and set about converting it but claims he was stonewalled as publicity about his plans reignited national debate about how to deal with a growing number of abused and abandoned horses.
His lawsuit claims evidence will show a "marked change in cooperation" by the USDA that the agency allegedly told him was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, the defamation suit alleges the animal protection groups actively tried to destroy his business.
Many animal humane groups and public officials were outraged at the idea of resuming domestic horse slaughter, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who previously vowed to fight the plan by Valley Meat Co.
"A horse's companionship is a way of life for many people across New Mexico," she said earlier this year. "We rely on them for work and bond with them through their loyalty."
Some others, however, including some horse rescues, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.
A bill passed last year authorized the USDA to resume horse slaughterhouse inspections, prompting the application from de los Santos.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased. Most humane 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 that country and 64,652 to Canada, according to USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to ending horse slaughter. That compares to total exports of 37,884 of the animals in 2006.
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