Like many horse owners, Cate Stoltzfus is repulsed by the thought of killing horses for food.
And she thinks the current practice of hauling about 170,000 horses out of the U.S. each year for slaughter in Canada and Mexico is far from desirable.
“Americans like things sanitized,” said Ms. Stoltzfus, a Berks County, Pa., hay farmer who owns five horses. “We don’t feel good about horse slaughter so we banned slaughter plants in the U.S., but we didn’t ban the shipping of horses across the border to be slaughtered. So I think we just made ourselves feel good.”
Horse owners’ feelings are strong as ever because it appears that killing horses in the U.S. as a source of food, a practice that has not happened legally here since 2007, might be about to resume.
Months of legal jousting led to a hearing this month in a New Mexico courtroom, where a judge continued a temporary ban on an attempt by Valley Meat Co. to start slaughtering horses. Another hearing is scheduled for this week.
Just the notion of killing and eating horses stirs complaints within the horse community.
“If it were a humane way of slaughtering, it might come down to being a necessity,” said Lois Smith, who helps run a horse farm Berks County.
She said many animals suffer during trips to foreign slaughterhouses.
Animals that wind up being considered for slaughter often are termed “unwanted horses,” said Skip Seifert, a York County horse owner and president of the Pennsylvania Equine Council for 2014 to 2015.
Although no statistics are available, Mr. Seifert said the problem is worse than ever.
A significant factor is the continued weak economy. Many people who previously could afford the feeding and care of a horse — owners put the minimum range at $1,500 to $2,000 a year — can no longer do so.
Another is the cost of ending a horse’s life. Euthanizing an animal and properly disposing of the body can cost at least several hundred dollars.
But selling an unwanted horse at auction, where it can be purchased by a “kill buyer” and shipped to a foreign slaughterhouse, can generate cash.
Mr. Seifert said better education is part of the solution. Horse owners, he said, must budget for the lifelong care of their animals, as well plan for their deaths.
There is almost no market for horse meat in the U.S. There is demand in Europe and Asia, driven by human consumption.
In 2007, budget language adopted by Congress stopped the funding of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors for horse slaughterhouses.
The language was lifted in 2011, but the USDA did not approve permits for slaughterhouses until last summer. Various delays since then have included the filing of lawsuits.
New Mexico is one of several states where companies have moved toward restarting horse slaughter.
Valley Meat’s proposed start was put on hold because of a lawsuit filed by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King.
On Jan. 3, after a hearing in the case, state District Judge Matthew Wilson extended a temporary ban on Valley Meat’s operations in order to hear more testimony. Last week, Valley Meat ownership gave notice it intends to sue Mr. King’s office, alleging slander, harassment, conspiracy and abuse of process.
A leading opponent of slaughter at the national level is the Humane Society of the United States, which has joined in lawsuits in an attempt to block the resumption.
“There is no process to slaughter horses that they have created in the world that is humane,” said Stephanie Twining, a society spokeswoman.
Ms. Stoltzfus said there is no simple answer to the overpopulation of unwanted horses, but the current scenario cries out for improvement. “I think we have taken the chicken’s way out, sending them to slaughter elsewhere.”