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Published August 19, 2013, 02:04 PM

Unexpected splits in horse slaughter debate

The Navajo Nation has voiced support for horse slaughter, to the dismay of opponents.

By: Fernando Santos, New York Times News Service

It seemed at first like a logical alliance for boldface names in the interconnected worlds of Hollywood and politics. Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and the actor Robert Redford, a staunch conservationist, joined animal rights groups in a federal lawsuit to block the revival of horse slaughter in the United States, proclaiming that they were “standing with Native American leaders,” to whom horse slaughter “constitutes a violation of tribal cultural values.”

Soon, though, the two men, who recently started a foundation to protect New Mexico’s wildlife, found themselves on a collision course with the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized tribe, whose president released a letter to Congress on Aug. 2 asserting his support for horse slaughtering.

Free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range, says Ben Shelly, the Navajo president. There is a gap between reality and romance when, he says, “outsiders” like Redford interpret the struggles of American Indians.

“Maybe Robert Redford can come and see what he can do help us out,” Shelly says. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

The horses, tens of thousands of them, are at the center of a passionate, politicized dispute playing out in court, in Congress and even within tribes across the West about whether federal authorities should sanction their slaughtering to thin the herds. The practice has never been banned, but it stopped when money for inspections was cut from the federal budget.

In Navajo territory, parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle.

According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Shelly says. They have no owners, and many of them are believed to be native to the West. The tribes say they must find an efficient way of reducing the population. Although it is common to shoot old and frail horses — and more merciful than a ride to the slaughterhouse — there are too many of them to be dealt with, and there is some money in rounding them up and selling them at auction.

Richardson acknowledges the conflict, which has sown divisions even among members of the same tribe. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include tribesmen such as Paul Crane Tohlakai, a Navajo, and David Bald Eagle, the chief of the Minikoju Band of the Cheyenne River Tribe of Lakota Indians. In impassioned tones, they spoke of American Indians’ special relationship with horses, “the magnificent four-legged” animal “who has a part in our creation stories,” as Tohlakai put it.

“Institutionally, there have to be some issues that have to be dealt with, and that’s why the ultimate solution is to find a natural habitat, or a series of natural habitats, and adoption for the horses,” Richardson says, responding to the claims by the Navajos’ president.

Horse slaughter in the US

The U.S. has never fostered a market for horse meat, a dietary staple in places such as Belgium, China and Kazakhstan. It does have a history of horse slaughtering, though; at one point there were more than 10 such slaughterhouses in the country. The last three, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007, after Congress banned the use of federal money for salaries for personnel whose job was to inspect the horses and the facilities where they would be slaughtered. (One thing inspectors look for is evidence of drug use on the horses, not uncommon among those once used for racing.)

The language that would have continued the lack of funding for inspections did not make it into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s appropriations bill approved for the 2012 fiscal year, which did not change for the current fiscal year.

Valley Meat, based in Roswell, N.M., sued in October, accusing USDA of thwarting its efforts to open a horse slaughter plant even after the facility had met all the necessary requirements. acquiesced, eventually granting the company its permits.

The plant was to open Aug. 8. On Aug. 2, however, Redford, Richardson and the animal rights groups scored a legal victory when a judge in Albuquerque issued a restraining order halting inspections of horse slaughter plants for 30 days.