ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- An Internet video that shows a meat company employee swearing at animal activists before shooting a horse in the head highlights the increasing emotional intensity of the national debate over whether a New Mexico plant should be allowed to resume domestic horse slaughter.
Animal rights groups this week uncovered a video posted by a former employee of Valley Meat Co., which has been fighting the United States Department of Agriculture for more than a year for approval to convert its former cattle slaughter operation into a horse slaughterhouse.
Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos said the employee, who was let go this week, was reacting to harassment by animal rights activists who have targeted the plant since its plans were made public about a year ago. The harassment has worsened since the video, made a year ago, was uncovered this week, he said.
"We are getting lots of threats: that we better watch our back, watch who is around us, that they hope our kids and families get killed, ugly stuff," De Los Santos said Friday.
The video shows Tim Sappington of Dexter leading a seemingly healthy horse by a rope to a spot in a dirt road. He strokes his nose and neck, says, "All you animal activists, (expletive) you," then shoots it in the head.
Chaves County Sheriff Rob Coon said the department is bracing for things to get worse as the company nears a final inspection by federal regulators with the hope of opening horse slaughter operations next month.
The video, he said, "didn't help anything," noting the issue is "very emotional."
De Los Santos said he has hired a security firm to guard his company and its workers.
The New Mexico Livestock Board has launched an inquiry into the shooting as a possible case of animal abuse. But the sheriff noted that it's not illegal for a horse owner to kill the animal and eat it, saying it's no different than a farmer who slaughters his pig and consumes the meat. That's because horses are considered livestock and no different under the law than cattle or pigs.
"Everybody is up in arms," Coon said. "The sad part is — or maybe it's good for him— there is not a law that says you can't slaughter your livestock for consumption. And he is a horse eater."
No one answered a telephone listing for Sappington in Dexter on Friday.
De Los Santos said Sappington actually filmed the entire process for preparing the horse for consumption. But he only posted part of the video.
Carolyn Schnurr, federal legislative manager of government relations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, called the video "emotionally disturbing."
But she said the group does not condone violence, and reminded others opposed to horse slaughter to "stay focused on what needs to be done to help American horses ... to end the slaughter of American horses."
Horse slaughter opponents are pushing legislation in Congress to ban domestic slaughter, as well as the export of horses to other countries for slaughter.
The debate is raging amid a recent uproar in Europe over horse meat being found in products labeled as beef.
De Los Santos has said the meat from his plant would be processed for human consumption in Russia, eastern Europe and Asia. It will also be used for pet foods.
Last year, De Los Santos sued the USDA to resume the inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first horse slaughterhouse in more than five years. The USDA earlier this month said it has no choice legally but to move forward with the application of Valley Meat and several other companies since Congress lifted a ban on the practice. The company's attorney, A. Blair Dunn, said earlier this week that a final inspection of the plant by USDA officials is expected in early April.
Many animal humane groups and public officials are outraged at the idea of resuming domestic slaughter, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who points to the iconic animal's role as a loyal companion in the West.
But others — including some horse rescuers, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association — support the plans. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006. They say the ban on domestic slaughter has led to tens of thousands of horses being shipped to inhumane slaughterhouses in Mexico.