The traditional view of American horse slaughter was best captured in a 2007 federal circuit court ruling. “The lone cowboy riding his horse is a cinematic icon. Not once in memory did the cowboy eat his horse,” wrote one judge in a decision that permitted a state ban on the practice. That same year, under pressure from animal welfare groups, the U.S. Congress cut all federal funding for the inspection of horsemeat processing plants. The domestic practice of killing equines for human consumption came to a halt.
But the change was not permanent, and a backlash from horse owners ensued. Now, just six years later, horse slaughter has returned to the American landscape, thanks to the efforts of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, a Wyoming horse poet Congresswoman and a retired Texas Democrat at a powerful lobbying firm. The pro-slaughter contingent argues that a ban on horse slaughter is actually worse than the alternative, decreasing the value of horses, shifting slaughtering to outside the U.S. and increasing the chances that horses will be mistreated in their old age.
Congress lifted the ban on horsemeat plant inspection in 2011 despite the objections of President Obama and 70% of Americans, who told pollsters they oppose the practice. In recent weeks, two small companies have been granted inspection permits. Fuming animal welfare groups are doing everything they can to hold off plant inspections until another temporary or permanent ban is put in place, starting with lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society, told TIME that he hopes a semipermanent fix can be found when Congress passes 2014 appropriations bills, drafts of which already include a renewal of the 2007 ban. “There’s just no point in a business opening up for a month or two to kill horses,” he said. “We hope that they delay their plans until the congressional funding issue is sorted out.” Pacelle is also pushing another bill that would impose an unequivocal ban on domestic slaughter and the export of live horses.
But success is by no means certain. The current face of the horse slaughter lobby is Rick de los Santos, a man from Roswell, New Mexico who wants to convert his beef processing plant into a horse butchering facility. De los Santos says economic opportunity was the reason for his application for USDA inspection, filed just days after the ban was lifted and granted on June 28th. Horsemeat is considered a delicacy in many countries, and since the 2007 ban, Mexico has been enjoying the product’s healthy profit margin. “Why continue to outsource?” Rick’s wife Sarah asked CBS this year. “I mean, this whole election is going to be about jobs.”
The de los Santos family enjoys the support of a number of members of Congress, some of whom commissioned the Government Accountability Office report that helped lift the ban on inspecting horsemeat processing plants in 2011. The report estimated that the average per head price of a horse in the lowest price category—the kind of horse that could once be sold to a slaughterhouse for between $400 to $600—decreased by nearly 21% when horsemeat processing stopped. It also cited 17 state veterinarians who claimed that the cessation of domestic slaughter was one of the two most significant factors contributing to the decline of horse welfare between 2007 and 2011. “While we all love horses and their contribution to our culture, the ban led to unintended consequences and increased inhumane treatment of animals,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who commissioned the report alongside Democrats Herb Kohl and Sam Farr and Republican Roy Blunt.
Members of Congress fighting for horse slaughter still cite the report’s conclusions. “I have serious concerns that measures like [a federal ban on horse slaughter], while well-intentioned, would create a set of unintended consequences with the potential to negatively affect many aspects of the horse industry,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who is vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Goodlatte’s view has been supported by the lobbying efforts of ranchers and slaughterhouses. Former Democratic congressman Charles Stenholm of Texas—“the main mouthpiece for the horse slaughter industry” in Washington, according to Pacelle—works on the issue just a few blocks from the Capitol at the lobbying firm of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC. “It prevents the immediate creation of hundreds of good, American jobs,” said Stenholm in one of his critiques of a horse slaughter ban. His clients have included the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Livestock Marketing Association, both of which endorse the practice.
When asked about the new ban promoted by the Humane Society, Stenholm told TIME that the issue is not as black and white as animal welfare groups make it out to be. In his opinion, this is a simple matter of private property. “Why should the United States Congress feel it is their best interest to prohibit horse owners from ending the life of their horse in a humane way?” he said. “I don’t think it is going to be nearly as simple once the Congress has to start facing up to the actual language of that legislation and how it should be done.”
Outside Washington, United Horsemen is the most powerful pro-slaughter interest group. Founded by Sue Wallis, a conservative representative from Wyoming’s 52nd with a knack for writing poetry about horses, United Horsemen’s stance is that owners should be able to make their own decisions about managing their stables. United Horsemen President Dave Duquette claims that the horse rescue centers championed by the Humane Society do not manage equine populations in a healthy way. A number of centers have been charged with animal abuse and cruelty because their facilities cannot handle the volume of horses that need to be rescued.
“The animal rights groups have had six years to come up with a solution to this problem and they haven’t. And we told them they weren’t going to,” Duquette told TIME. He cited Senator Mary Landrieu as an example of a congressperson who devotes time and money to eradicating unwanted pig populations but ignores the horses wreaking havoc on her own state.
But horse slaughter remains a risky issue to publicly promote, given the romantic reputation of horses and the dearth of horse-eating cowboys in Hollywood westerns. It remains too soon to say which side will finally be able to declare victory. “Everybody’s worried about re-election,” said Duquette, who claims that many of his Washington prefer to remain in the shadows. “It’s politics as usual.”