EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - Area horse owners who have struggled to feed their animals because of high hay prices may soon face a difficult option -- selling horses in New Mexico to be slaughtered as food for people.
On Jan. 1, the first U.S. slaughterhouse legally allowed to process horse meat since 2007 is scheduled to open in Roswell, N.M. Similar businesses are attempting to open in Iowa and Missouri.
The potential return of horse-slaughtering plants is influenced by the demand for horse meat in countries such as Europe, Japan and Mexico. According to experts, immigrants from those countries also have a taste for the meat, and horses are often bought at actions and illegally sold to Canada and Mexico.
Hilary Wood, director of the Front Range Equine Rescue, said the slaughterhouse would buy directly from horse owners or from third parties known as "kill buyers" who would purchase the animals and transport them to Roswell.
During the past several years, the high cost of hay has led horse owners to starve or abandon their animals. Wood said there's not a surplus of horses in Colorado -- only a surplus of irresponsible owners who seek to escape the responsibility and expense of caring for horses.
Wood said slaughtering horses for meat is inhumane because the animals cannot be safely transported, processed or consumed as cattle are.
"Usually what you find is horses are transported for days on end, not given food and water and are often injured or dead when they arrive at the plant," she said. "Slaughtering is a very terrifying experience for them because they're fearful and get afraid in new situations, and they have physiological difference from cattle."
Wood said horses traditionally haven't been raised as food in the U.S. and are given medicines that aren't safe for people to eat and can contaminate waterways near slaughterhouses.
However, Brett Axton, a hunter and former horse owner in Colorado Springs, disagrees that slaughtering horses is inhumane.
"It's better to have a horse used for meat than have it starve to death in the middle of a prairie where someone can't afford to feed it," he said. "I've eaten horse meat. It's not bad. There's nothing wrong with it. If that plant opens, you're going to see a lot of people take their horses (there)."
Wood said horses are stolen more often when slaughterhouses are in operation.
On Thursday, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King filed suit in state district court to stop the opening of the slaughterhouse. He cited potential violations of state laws related to food safety, water quality and unfair business practices.
Blair Dunn, an attorney representing the plant, said the plant's owner still intendss to open as scheduled.
Previous slaughtering plants, two in Texas and one in Illinois, closed in 2007. Experts said at the time, 10 percent of the horse meat was used to feed carnivores at zoos, and the rest was shipped overseas for human consumption.
Wood said horse owners may legally slaughter and eat their own horses, but may not slaughter and distribute horse meat to other people without the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
No federal law banning the overall slaughter of horses for human consumption exists. The House of Representatives in 2006 passed a bill to that effect, but the Senate version of the bill failed in committee. The bills were reintroduced in 2007 and 2011 but not voted on.