By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — The Navajo Nation is about to wade into the heated debate over a horse-meat processing plant in Roswell and will support Valley Meat Co. becoming the first horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. in seven years.
“They’re eating up the land and drinking all the water,” Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley told New Mexico Watchdog of the feral horses on Navajo Nation land that encompasses 27,425 square miles, including parts of Arizona and Utah as well as a large section of northwest New Mexico.
Zah estimated there are 20,000 to 30,000 “feral horses on our lands,” and that Navajo Nation lawyers in Washington, D.C., are in the process of finalizing a letter that Shelly will sign in support of the horse slaughter facility “with the next couple of days.”
“I’m sympathetic to the native nations but all this is going to do is make New Mexico the slaughter state,” said Phil Carter of Animal Protection New Mexico, one of the facility’s opponents. “We have to move forward beyond this outdated and cruel slaughter model.”
The debate over the facility in Roswell has sparked heated arguments that extend beyond state borders.
Opponents of the facility include Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, former Gov. Bill Richardson, state Attorney General Gary King and State Land Commissioner Ray Powell, as well as actor Robert Redford and animal rights groups. The Humane Society of the United States is one of a slew of plaintiffs seeking an injunction to stop the company from opening its slaughterhouse operations.
Supporters say that given the rising cost of hay, horses have been abandoned and left to starve. They argue it’s better to have unwanted and dying horses killed in a federall -inspected facility in the U.S. than have them sent to plants in places like Mexico, where they often meet gruesome deaths in unsanitary conditions.
“Which would you rather do, put them down in a humane fashion or let them starve to death,” the facility’s attorney Blair Dunn said earlier this month.
Last Saturday, a fire broke out at the company and officials suspect it may have been deliberately set. The blaze burned part of the exterior of Valley Meat Co.’s building and damaged a refrigeration unit. A Chaves County sheriff’s lieutenant described the fire as “very suspicious.”
“It was an act of domestic terrorism,” Dunn told the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership Tuesday.
Zah said the Navajo Nation’s decision to weigh in on the matter is “more economic” than anything else.
“We’re already in a drought,” Zah said. “We already have our registered cattle and sheep and registered horses to care for. We’re concerned about water and vegetation” being eaten by feral horses.
Zah said a horse slaughter facility in Roswell is simply closer and more cost-effective.
“We need some place to take them,” he said. “There are other options but they are more costly … The plant Roswell provides us this opportunity.”
But Carter says there are other options, including injecting horses with contraceptives, gelding stallions and euthanizing them.
But isn’t that expensive?
Carter points to the New Mexico Equine Protection Fund that his group administers and says the cost to tending to feral horses has been reduced to about $200 per head. “And there’s no reason those costs couldn’t come down more,” Carter said.
“They’re sacred animals,” Zah acknowledged but added, “We also have a kinship with our land. There’s a delicate balance there. Everything is related, everything is intertwined. When one is out of balance, we have to take care of that delicate balance.”
Supporters of the plant have estimated there are 9,000 feral horses on Mescalero Apache land in southern New Mexico. Numerous phone calls from New Mexico Watchdog to Alfred LaPaz, acting president of the Mescalero tribe, seeking comment have gone unanswered.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski