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Most Americans don't eat horsemeat and they don't like the idea of slaughtering horses for food either. But a handful of investors are retrying to restart a horsemeat industry in the United States. They argue that slaughter would be good for the horse business and more humane than the current situation.

As Frank Morris, of member station KCUR reports, the issue is dividing horse owners into two camps, one that views horses as pets and the other that sees them as livestock.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Horses are a touchtone of American culture and that is not hard to see in Kansas City.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's my pleasure to welcome you here to the 23rd annual Hill Top Saddle Club Rodeo

MORRIS: Hill Top is the nation's oldest African American saddle club. Its president, Howard Hall, sits up in a wagon, pulled by two Clydesdales.

HOWARD HALL: And it is cultural. But cowboys, the Old West, you can't eat your horse. You know, you just can't do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Alright, take care now.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEIGHING HORSE)

MORRIS: Well, some do. People in Europe and Asia eat horsemeat routinely. And thousands of American horses are already slaughtered each year for those markets. But they're not slaughtered here, not anymore.

Cynthia MacPherson led efforts to kill two proposed horse slaughterhouses in Southern Missouri. To her, it would be like slaughtering pets.

CYNTHIA MACPHERSON: If you said I'm going to open a puppy mill to breed dogs because people in China and people in France want to eat dog meat, I think there'd be a big public outcry. And that's what we have here.

MORRIS: Public outcry has followed horse slaughter since Congress funded inspections for it a couple of years ago. U.S. Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle argues that horses suffer more than other animals at slaughter. And he contends that the meat is dangerous, since horses can be treated with drugs not allowed in animals raised specifically for food.

WAYNE PACELLE: We have standards. We have values in society. You don't just opportunistically harvest whatever animal is around.

SUE WALLIS: See, what we're dealing with here is two very different styles of meat production.

MORRIS: Sue Wallis, a Wyoming lawmaker with a dozen horses, says fattening up animals fast and slaughtering them young is the modern way to produce meat. Horse slaughter, she says, follows an older model.

WALLIS: Chickens for eggs, lambs for wool, cows for milk, horses for work, and when their useful, productive life has passed, then you turn them into meat.

MORRIS: For Wallis, horses are livestock first, companions second, more assets than pets. And that's a common view in rural areas. Here in Jamesport, Missouri, black horse-drawn buggies park right next to cars. And Elmer Beechy, a wiry man sporting a faded black hat and a stern-looking beard, runs the tack shop.

ELMER BEECHY: I love horses. I really love horses. But when they're no good to me, what are you going to do with them? We don't want to take 'em out back and shoot 'em. They may just as well be slaughtered and get some use out of them.

MORRIS: Meat for horse eaters, money for horse owners. Until they were shut down, domestic slaughterhouses provided a ready market for old, hobbled or unruly steeds. They made horses more valuable. Beechy says shutting them down has spurred a glut of unwanted and neglected animals.

BEECHY: Lot of horses out there in the pasture, hurting. Some of them linger three or four years, suffer every day. And the slaughter's the best place for them.

MORRIS: Domestic slaughter, he means. The long hauls to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico can brutalize the animals and burn up the seller's profit. So thousands of horses have just been abandoned on Indian reservations, cow pastures and public lands. Jim Smith runs a wild horse refuge in the Missouri Ozarks.

JIM SMITH: People will just stop and open the trailer and turn 'em out and drive off.

MORRIS: As far as Smith is concerned, the solution lies in opening what he calls killer plants.

DAVE RAINS: They have to come in here and then the shooter will be up here.

MORRIS: Dave Rains is showing off his homemade knock box, a lightly padded steel cage built to confine a horse about to be shot in the head. Necessary business, he says, but not work he's looking forward to.

RAINS: It's hard, but it's a better end than a slow, painful death, and that's what a lot of these horses are going through right now.

MORRIS: Rain's finances are suffering, too. He built this plant on the corner of his farm near Jamesport, Missouri, to process naturally raised beef and pork. When big companies saturated that marketplace, he put in for a permit to butcher horses. He expected to be in business this time last year.

RAINS: I knew there'd be some opposition, but I never dreamed it would be at the level that it has been.

MORRIS: A lawsuit backed by the Humane Society now stands between Rains and a state permit. A proposed plant in New Mexico is also embroiled in litigation. In the meantime, Rains has picked up work driving a school bus to help make ends meet and to keep his own saddle horses fed, while he waits to find out whether or not horses will once again be slaughtered in the U.S. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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