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Roswell, N.M. is set to become the first town in the nation to begin domestic horse slaughter. Chaves County Commissioner Smiley Wooten, who favors the plan, toured pens at his animal auction house.

John Glionna • Los Angeles Times • MCT,

New Mexico community divided over plans to slaughter horses

  • Article by: John M. Glionna
  • Los Angeles Times
  • January 27, 2014 - 6:29 PM

– Dressed in bluejeans, boots and an oversized cowboy hat, Smiley Wooton walked the grounds of his animal auction house here, detailing the intricacies of livestock life and death — whether it’s a cow, pig or goat.

The barrel-chested rancher, who is also a Chaves County commissioner, said making informed decisions on which animals live and which go to slaughter is ingrained in the cultural fabric of this agricultural community of 48,000 in southeastern New Mexico, even among its children.

He pointed to photos of 4-H winners posing with prize animals they raised from infancy. “Every one of these kids knew that animal would end up on somebody’s plate,” he said. “Everyone here gets that.”

Now, that prevailing local wisdom is being challenged. The owner of a livestock processing plant wants his slaughterhouse to become the nation’s first in years to begin butchering domestic horses.

Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos, whom most folks know as a hardworking family man, had slaughtered cattle at his plant for two decades before it closed in 2012. A faltering economy, he says, prompted his decision to switch to horses.

Although Wooton and others favor the plan, condemnation has poured in from across the country. And though locals aren’t picketing in this close-knit community where high school students have slaughtered animals in agriculture classes, many quietly say they, too, oppose killing horses.

“A horse’s brain is rigged differently than a cow’s,” said Cassie Gross, who insisted that many domestic horses are medicated with drugs that could leach into drinking water. “A bolt to the forehead isn’t a sure kill. It’s not humane.”

Horses shipped outside U.S.

Two years after Congress voted to defund horse slaughterhouse inspections in 2005, state bans in Texas and Illinois shut down the three remaining plants nationwide — prompting many unwanted horses to be exported for slaughter in foreign markets.

De Los Santos said 158,000 U.S. horses were shipped to Mexico and Canada last year — product that could provide jobs in Roswell. After months of legal wrangling, including suits filed by animal advocates and even the state of New Mexico, his bid seems to be on hold.

A state district judge this month issued an injunction to stop the plant from opening after New Mexico’s state attorney general sued, claiming the plant would contaminate the food chain. And the latest budget passed by Congress cut funding for inspections of horse slaughter plants.

“Americans care for horses, we ride horses and we even put them to work. But we don’t eat horses in the United States. And we shouldn’t be gathering them up and slaughtering them for people to eat in far-off places,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said after the budget’s passage.

Wooton and others disagree. They say politicians should stay out of Roswell’s — and De Los Santos’ — business.

‘Not household pets’

“This man has been raked over the coals so doggone long, it’s frustrating for everybody,” Wooton said. “Nobody loves horses more than cowboys. But society has made horses bigger than they are. They’re livestock, a tool of the ranch business, not household pets.”

Local leaders have some advice for out-of-state activists who plan to protest if one horse is slaughtered here: Stay home.

“People are tired of the East and West Coast telling us what to think, do and say,” said Greg Nibert, an attorney and county commissioner. “They ignore the fact that residents’ lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

De Los Santos said he’s been threatened and believes an arson fire at his plant was set by outsiders.

Debate on the issue is happening right here. A half-mile from Wooton’s auction house, brothers Danny and Richie Padilla personified the divide. The two construction workers recently argued their case over a few beers at a bar.

“This plant would create jobs,” said Danny, muscular and sun-tanned.

Younger brother Richie, cut in: “You just don’t kill an animal like that. And how many jobs would it create here? A half-dozen?”

“That’s six less people in the unemployment lines,” Danny said.

Richie, a thin man in a ball cap, waved him off.

“No, man,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

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