Skirmish settled in horse slaughter war

Dec 23, 2013

—Slaughter opponents’ environmental harm claim called “speculative and insufficient”

The progress toward domestic horse slaughter isn’t exactly thundering along, but one of the many proverbial tree branches in its path has been removed. The path still leads through a forest of potential obstacles, but it is just that much closer.

Friday the 13th proved to be an unlucky day for a collection of groups trying to prevent U.S. horse processing from starting up again after an over six year de facto ban. The 10th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Denver, CO, denied the groups’ request for an injunction against federal inspection of horses—effectively a temporary ban on horse slaughter— pending the appeal of the dismissal of their case. The denial of their emergency injunction amounts to a green light on domestic horse slaughter.

Earlier this year, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) issued inspection grants to three prospective horse processing facilities: Valley Meat Company of Roswell, NM, Responsible Transportation based in Iowa, and Rains Natural Meats from Gallatin, MO. The inspection grants and attendant regulations would furnish the processing plants with federal inspectors trained in equine handling and inspection. This would effectively end the ban on U.S. horse slaughter that resulted from the 2006-2007 defunding of FSIS’ equine inspection program.

Following the inspection grants being issued, a collection of groups including the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), Front Range Equine Rescue, and the State of New Mexico filed suit against USDA and FSIS officials including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the three horse processing plants. The plaintiff groups alleged the inspection grants were issued without environmental assessments or an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. This suit was dismissed and the plaintiffs are currently seeking appeal.

For the injunction pending appeal to have been granted, the plaintiffs would have had to demonstrate four things:

• Likelihood of succeeding in their appeal;

• The threat of irreparable harm without the injunction;

• A lack of harm to the opposing party should the injunction be granted; and

• Risk of harm to the public interest.

In its examination of these requirements, the court found the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in their appeal in some areas, though not in others, and that they were lacking with regard to the three harmrelated requirements.

“Plaintiffs have not presented any non-speculative evidence that they (or the environment) will suffer irreparable harm if the FSIS, pursuant to the FMIA, inspects the slaughterhouse facilities and potentially allows limited horse slaughtering operations to commence (assuming the horse slaughter operations satisfy the FSIS review) before this appeal is resolved,” read the court’s ruling.

The court went on to call the plaintiffs’ suggested harm as “speculative and insufficient” as it was based on “environmental damage arising out of previous, unrelated, and limited instances of equine slaughter.” On the other hand, the defendants— specifically the three processing plants—could show easily recognizable harm from the potential injunction, as it would “prevent them from running their lawful businesses.”

Though this is a relatively minor legal move, the environmentally-focused issue at hand is little more than the current field for the horse slaughter battle. The topic is undeniably a polarizing one so the reactions to the denied injunction have been widely mixed.

On the one hand, the plaintiffs and likeminded individuals and groups have long argued that horse slaughter is inherently inhumane and goes against the values of the American public. HSUS has thrown down the gauntlet, saying, “The fight for America’s horses is not over.”

“We will press for a quick resolution of the merits of our claims in the 10th Circuit,” Jonathan R. Lovvorn, HSUS’ Senior Vice President of Animal Protection Litigation and Investigations, told the Associated Press.

The defendants and supporters of horse slaughter argue that theirs is the humane answer to an economy that sees horses abused, starved and abandoned because they are too expensive to feed and have no value in a horse-saturated country.

“Responsible Transporation strives to add value to the unwanted horse population by removing the financial burdens placed on owners,” reads the website of one of the defendant processing companies. “Our mission is to improve the quality of life of the unwanted horse population through the development and application of innovative livestock handling practices, utilization of professionally supervised and government regulated euthanasia processes, and removal of the agonizing voyages to processing facilities outside the United States.”

Though the plaintiffs’ appeal process is still ongoing, in the meantime the horse processing plants are making preparations to get underway. Responsible Transportation and Rains Natural Meats are estimated to open in a few weeks. Valley Meat Company owner Rick De Los Santo told Roswell TV KOB News 4 station he expects his company to begin operations on the first of the New Year.

“We’re going to start off really slow, to get the training and process out of the way to make sure everything is in order,” he said. Reportedly, contracts and demand already exceed his company’s ability to provide.

“Our main contract is horses going to Belgium, and then we’ve got contracts from Russia and China. I’ve got a big solid contract in China. There’s no way this plant could slaughter enough horses to supply all those contracts.”

The process of processing horses will be literally conducted under armed guard.

The little Roswell plant, which might process 120 horses a day when it gets up to full speed, is reportedly under 24-hour armed guard. This is due to the frequent and sometimes disturbingly personal threats on the well-being of Santo and his employees.

“People are calling in and leaving messages, ‘If you kill a horse, you’re dead.’ Threats like that, those are real threats. And so the FBI has gotten involved and they’re following leads,” he said. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor