ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal magistrate on Thursday ordered animal rights groups that won a temporary ban on domestic horse slaughter to post a bond of nearly $500,000 as they continue their legal fight.
U.S. Magistrate Robert Scott settled on the amount after hearing from attorneys who represent two companies that had planned to begin operations this week at slaughterhouses in New Mexico and Iowa.
The attorneys argued that the delay could be "devastating," costing their clients more than $1.5 million in lost revenues in just one month. The case could drag on for months and the losses could reach tens of millions of dollars, they said.
"The bond requires the plaintiffs to put their money where their mouth is. There are real-life consequences to these actions and we're appreciative of the judge recognizing that," said lawyer Pat Rogers, who represents Responsible Transportation, a company formed by three young men who have collected nearly $3 million from family, friends and other investors to open a plant in the town of Sigourney, Iowa.
The case has sparked an emotional debate about how best to deal with the tens of thousands of wild, unwanted and abandoned horses across the country as drought conditions and the lack of feed in many states continue to exacerbate the problem.
The Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue and others won a temporary restraining order last week that blocked Responsible Transportation and Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., from opening their plants.
The bond covers the companies' costs and lost profits for the next 30 days should the animal rights groups lose the case. Within that time, another hearing is planned in federal court to determine the fate of the temporary ban.
Attorneys for the animal rights groups argued Thursday that the losses estimated by the companies were highly speculative and the result of creative accounting.
Attorneys for the slaughterhouses disputed those claims.
Blair Dunn, who represents Valley Meat, said the Roswell plant was ready to begin operations last Monday and slaughter about 120 horses a day at $350 a head. The losses will be significant, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in June gave Valley Meat the go-ahead to begin slaughtering horses. USDA officials said they were legally obligated to issue the permit, even though the Obama administration opposes horse slaughter and is seeking to reinstate a congressional ban that was lifted in 2011.
Another permit was approved a few days later for Responsible Transportation.
The animal rights groups argue that the agency failed to do the proper environmental studies before issuing the permits.
Robert Redford, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, current New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King are among those who oppose a return to domestic horse slaughter, citing the horse's iconic role as a companion animal in the West.
But some ranchers' groups and the National Congress of American Indians, an organization that represents tribes across the country, argue that overgrazing by feral horses has caused serious environmental and ecological damage.
Supporters also say it is better to slaughter the horses in regulated and humane domestic facilities than to let them starve or be shipped to other countries for slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows cases of horse abuse and abandonment on a steady rise since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.