ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After months of legal wrangling and false starts in a more than two-year battle to resume domestic horse slaughter, plants in New Mexico and Missouri were working Monday to begin processing equine for human consumption.
The efforts come on the heels of an order late Friday by a federal appeals court that lifted an emergency stay on the companies' plans.
"They are pushing full steam ahead to be ready to go as soon as possible," said Blair Dunn, an Albuquerque attorney who represents Valley Meat Co. of Roswell and Rains Natural Meats of Gallatin, Mo.
Rains Natural Meats, he said, even had horses on site. But it was unclear if the plants would open before Christmas or wait until after the holidays.
A third company, Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, was reviewing its options, having already converted to beef.
Founder and CEO Keaton Walker said the company's beef operation was struggling against better-established competitors, and he planned to sell the plant unless he knew for sure that he could process horses. He said he expected to make a decision by early January.
"We're continuing to process cattle and will for the foreseeable future," Walker said. "We're still trying to understand what this all means right now. Honestly, I'm not really sure what we're going to do."
It was the third time in five months that the plants were scrambling to open. Valley Meat, which led the effort to resume domestic horse slaughter two years ago after Congress lifted its ban on the practice, Rains and a third company in Iowa were preparing to open in August when The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups sued to contest the Department of Agriculture's permitting process.
A federal judge in Albuquerque issued a temporary restraining order, prompting the Iowa company to convert its operations to beef. But U.S. District Judge Christine Armijo threw out the lawsuit in November, allowing them to proceed.
The animal protection groups filed an immediate appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued an emergency motion that again blocked the plants from opening. The appellate court lifted that order late Friday, saying the groups "failed to meet their burden for an injunction pending appeal."
Dunn said it could be six months before there is a final ruling in the case, but he called the action good news and a sign the appeals judges found it unlikely that the animal protection groups would be able to prevail.
The Humane Society said "the fight for America's horses is not over."