ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal judge on Friday temporarily halted plans by companies in New Mexico and Iowa to start slaughtering horses next week.
U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo issued a restraining order in a lawsuit brought by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups in case that has sparked an emotional national debate about how best to deal with the tens of thousands of unwanted and abandoned horses across the country.
Armijo issued a restraining order and scheduled another hearing for Monday in a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups that are strongly opposed to the idea of resuming horse slaughter for the first time in seven years in the U.S.
The groups contend the Department of Agriculture failed to do the proper environmental studies before issuing permits that allowed companies in Iowa and New Mexico to open horse slaughterhouses. The companies had said they wanted to open as soon as Monday.
The horse meat would be exported for human consumption and for use as zoo and other animal food.
Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., has been at the fore of the fight, pushing for more than a year for permission to convert its cattle plant into a horse slaughterhouse. Its plans ignited a divisive debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions, and how best to deal with all the neglected and often-starving horses.
After more than a year of delays and a lawsuit by Valley Meat, the Department of Agriculture in June gave the company the go-ahead to begin slaughtering horses. USDA officials said they were legally obligated to issue the permits, even though the Obama administration opposes horse slaughter and is seeking to reinstate a congressional ban that was lifted in 2011.
Another permit was approved a few days later for Responsible Transportation in Sigourney, Iowa.
The move has divided horse rescue and animal welfare groups, ranchers, politicians and Indian tribes about what is the most humane way to deal with the country's horse overpopulation.
Some Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Yakama nations, are among those who are pushing to let the companies open. They say the exploding horse populations on their reservations are trampling and overgrazing rangelands, decimating forage resources for cattle and causing widespread environmental damage. The Navajo Nation, the nation's largest Indian reservation, estimates there are 75,000 horses on its land, many of which are dehydrated and starving after years of drought.
On the other side, actor Robert Redford, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, current Gov. Susana Martinez and Attorney General Gary King are among those who strongly oppose a return to domestic horse slaughter, citing the animals' iconic role as companion animals in the West.
"Horse slaughter has no place in our culture," Redford said in a statement last week in announcing formation of a foundation that has joined the fight. "It is cruel, inhumane, and perpetuates abuse and neglect of these beloved animals. We must oppose it with all of our might."
Supporters of domestic 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.
They also cite USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance that shows the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, with many of those being shipped thousands of miles to points south of the border to be slaughtered in unregulated and inhumane facilities.
They said it is better to slaughter the horses in regulated and humane domestic facilities than to let them starve or be shipped to Mexico.