ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Robert Redford and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday joined the divisive debate against a return to domestic horse slaughter, announcing the formation of an animal protection foundation to fight the opening of plants in New Mexico and Iowa.
The Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife's first act was to join a federal lawsuit filed by the Humane Society and other groups to block the planned Aug. 5 opening of the first horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. to operate in more than six years.
"Horse slaughter has no place in our culture," Redford said in a statement. "It is cruel, inhumane, and perpetuates abuse and neglect of these beloved animals."
A lifelong horse lover, Richardson said he is committed to do "whatever it takes to stop the return of horse slaughterhouses in this country and, in particular, my own state."
"Congress was right to ban the inhumane practice years ago, and it is unfathomable that the federal government is now poised to let it resume," he said.
Meat from the slaughterhouses would be shipped to some countries for human consumption and for use as zoo and other animal food.
After more than a year of delays and a lawsuit by Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., the Department of Agriculture in June gave Valley Meat the go-ahead to begin slaughtering horses. Officials said it was 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 and what rescue groups have said are a rising number of neglected and starving horses as the West deals with persistent drought.
An Aug. 2 hearing is set on the demand by animal protection groups for a temporary restraining order to prevent the plants from opening and becoming the first horse slaughterhouses to operate domestically since 2007.
In addition to its opposition to horse slaughter, Redford and Richardson say, the Foundation to Protect New Mexico Wildlife will focus on the preservation and protection of the state's wild mustang and burro population. Other efforts will focus on the Mexican gray wolf, bison and the reintroduction of native fish and mammal species.
The foundation will also work to support New Mexico's animal shelters and to prevent animal cruelty.