ALBUQURQUE, N.M. (AP) — An Iowa company is dropping plans to slaughter horses in the wake of a federal judge's ruling that temporarily banned the practice as part of a lawsuit filed by animal welfare groups, a company executive said Tuesday.
Responsible Transportation, which owns a slaughterhouse in Sigourney, Iowa, was among two companies that had secured federal permits for horse slaughter. But the Iowa company's president, Keaton Walker, told The Associated Press that his firm cannot afford to wait for more court deliberations and was turning its focus to cattle.
"We just can't sit with our heads down," Walker said. "We have to get back to work. Our main focus now is going to be beef."
The other company with a federal permit, Valley Meat Co. of Roswell, N.M., was "still prepared to stay the course," company attorney Blain Dunn said. Valley Meat 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.
A federal judge issued a restraining order earlier this month in a lawsuit that has sparked an emotional national debate about how best to deal with the tens of thousands of wild, unwanted and abandoned horses across the country. The suit was filed by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dunn said the Humane Society and other similar groups have filed such lawsuits because they know companies "can't afford to sit around and wait."
The Department of Agriculture in July gave the Iowa company the go-ahead to begin slaughtering horses on Aug. 1. USDA officials said they were legally obligated to issue the permits, even though President Barack Obama's administration opposed horse slaughter and was seeking to reinstate a congressional ban that was lifted in 2011.
Walker said the company decided to reapply for a federal permit, as a beef-only operation, the day after U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo issued the temporary restraining order. Walker said his company, with 18 employees in southeast Iowa, should be able to switch within a month.
The Humane Society praised the company's decision on Tuesday, issuing a statement that said, "horse meat is a product of cruelty that Americans don't want to buy, and which pollutes the air and water wherever it occurs. It has no place in Iowa or any other state."
Supporters of the domestic horse slaughter note that the practice is already occurring. They argue that horse slaughter in federally regulated facilities is better than having the animals starve or shipped to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
Horse abuse and abandonment cases have increased since the slaughtering of horses was banned in 2006, and many owners in the West and Great Plains were left with fewer options to care for or euthanize their animals, according to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office.
Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos said he could understand why the Iowa company made the decision. But, he added: "We are going to see this deal all the way through."
The company slaughtered cattle for more than two decades but decided to convert its operations to horse slaughter after Congress lifted its ban on inspections for horse plants in late 2011, effectively legalizing domestic horse slaughter after the last plants were shuttered in 2007. It fought the USDA for more than a year for its permit, only getting the necessary approval after suing the USDA to force it to conduct the inspections necessary to win a horse slaughtering permit.
De Los Santos said his decision to convert his small slaughterhouse to horses was made after his market for cattle dried up when several dairies shut down in southeastern New Mexico.
"That was our primary business, slaughtering the rougher end of the dairy cows. All the big cows would go to the bigger plants. We would get all the rougher cows that couldn't make the trip," he said Tuesday. "When the medium-sized plants from Texas started dipping into our niche in the market, that really put us down where we couldn't afford to do business."
Grant Schulte reported from Lincoln, Neb.