By JERI CLAUSING
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The Navajo Nation is jumping into the emotional and divisive fray over a return to domestic horse slaughter, drafting a letter to federal officials in support of a New Mexico company's plan to begin exporting horse meat next week.
The tribe's support for Valley Meat Co. comes one week after Robert Redford and former Gov. Bill Richardson joined the opposite side of the debate, saying, among other reasons, that they were "standing with Native American leaders" to protect cultural values.
But Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo President Ben Shelly, said Wednesday that the nation's largest Indian reservation can no longer support the estimated 75,000 feral horses that are drinking wells dry and causing ecological damage to the drought-stricken range.
"It's a sensitive subject to begin with because horses are considered sacred animals, so you just can't go out and euthanize them," Zah said. "That would go too far against cultural conditions. At the same time we have a bunch of horses that no one is caring for, so it's a delicate balance."
Because of the horse overpopulation, the tribe already is rounding up and selling wild horses, Zah said. Some of those, he said, end up being shipped to Mexico.
Supporters of a return to domestic horse slaughter argue it is a more humane solution than shipping unhealthy and starving animals to facilities south of the border for slaughter under unregulated and often cruel circumstances.
The National Congress of American Indians, representing tribes across the country, is also lobbying in support of Valley Meat Co., saying overgrazing by feral horses is causing serious environmental and ecological damage.
On Monday, Valley Meat in Roswell and another recently approved horse slaughterhouse in Iowa are scheduled to become the first facilities in the country to legally slaughter horses since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago. That ban was lifted in 2011.
Apparent arsonists hit Valley Meat Co. over the weekend, damaging the company's refrigeration system. Owner Rick De Los Santo said he can't operate without it, but he won't know until Friday how extensive the damage is and whether it can be fixed by Monday.
De Los Santos said his family and his business have been the target of threats over the past year as Valley Meat has fought the federal government for permission to operate.
Also Friday, a federal judge in Albuquerque is holding a hearing on a lawsuit by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups who contend that the Department of Agriculture failed to conduct the proper environmental reviews before issuing permits to slaughter horses.
The USDA also opposes horse slaughter. But after being sued by Valley Meat Co. for failing to act on its application, the agency said it was obligated to issue the permits under current law. However, the agency is lobbying for a ban on horse slaughter.
Meat from the slaughterhouses would be shipped to some countries for human consumption and for use as zoo and other animal food.