The proposal by Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos has reignited emotional debates over what constitutes humane treatment of horses, and how best to control an exploding equine population. Perhaps the most divisive question of all is whether the noble, iconic animals that played a key role in the settling of much of America are livestock or pets.
"It's probably the most polarizing issue the horse industry has had to face in a long time," said Ward Stutz, senior director of breed integrity at the American Quarter Horse Association in Amarillo, Texas, one of a number of livestock and horse groups that support a return to domestic slaughter.
"Let me just say it this way," he said. "We believe it is the owner's right to determine what is in the best interest of their horses. We recognize that there is a lot of abandonment and neglect, therefore we believe that horse slaughter should be available."
'A way of life'
Many animal humane groups and public officials are outraged at the suggestion, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
"A horse's companionship is a way of life for many people across New Mexico," Martinez said after the proposal became public earlier this year. "We rely on them for work and bond with them through their loyalty. I believe creating a horse-slaughter industry in New Mexico is wrong, and I am strongly opposed."
Supporters of horse slaughter point to a June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows cases of horse abuse and abandonment on a steady rise since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006. But a bill passed last year authorized the USDA to resume horse slaughterhouse inspections, prompting the application from De Los Santos. His cattle slaughter business dropped off as area ranchers sold their herds because of drought.
"What we see here will actually break your heart," said Charles Graham, executive director of New Mexico Horse Rescue at Walkin' N Circles Ranch and a supporter of humane horse slaughter in the United States.
Starving in the backyard
"The problem in New Mexico is there is a lot of land," he said. "People get a horse, the wife loses her job, they keep the new car, the big TV, the cable service, and a horse in the backyard starving."
In Colorado, the GAO report states, investigations for abuse and neglect rose more than 60 percent after horse slaughter was banned domestically, from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. Although national data are lacking, the GAO says California, Texas, and Florida have also reported a rise in the number of abandoned horses since 2007.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased. 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 dedicated to ending horse slaughter. That compares with total exports of 37,884 in 2006.
In New Mexico, Randol Riley, a supervisor with the New Mexico Livestock Board, said he gets calls reporting suspected abuse every day. And he says abandonment is on the rise.
"Here lately it's gotten worse. They are dumping horses like crazy," he said.
The plight of some horses was captured recently on video posted on YouTube by the animal-rights group Animal Angels. The video, which shows four horses unable to stand inside a pen at the Southwest Livestock Auction in Valencia, N.M., prompted a criminal probe by local and state officials of the sale yard, where many unwanted horse are bought and sold for slaughter in Mexico.
The Valencia County district attorney on Tuesday charged the auction's owner, Dennis Chavez, with 12 counts of misdemeanor and other animal-cruelty charges related to the four horses, which had to be euthanized. Chavez did not immediately return calls from the Associated Press.
Debbie Coburn of Four Corners Equine Rescue in Farmington, N.M., says the case highlights the need to end horse slaughter, including in Mexico. Instead, she said, the horse industry needs to address the issue of population control.