ROSWELL, N.M. — Dressed in blue jeans, boots and an oversized cowboy hat, Smiley Wooton walked the grounds of his animal auction house here, detailing the intricacies of livestock life and death — whether it's a cow, pig or goat.
The barrel-chested rancher, who is also a Chaves County commissioner, says making informed decisions on which animals live and which go to slaughter is ingrained in the cultural fabric of this agricultural community of 48,000 in southeastern New Mexico, even among its children.
He pointed to dozens of photos of 4-H winners posing with prize animals they raised from infancy. "Every one of these kids knew that animal would end up on somebody's plate," he said. "Everyone here gets that."
Now, that prevailing local wisdom is being challenged. The owner of a livestock processing plant wants his slaughterhouse to become the nation's first in years to begin butchering domestic horses.
Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos, whom most folks know as a hard-working family man, had slaughtered cattle at his plant for two decades before it closed in 2012. A faltering economy, he says, prompted his decision to switch to horses.
Although Wooton and others favor the plan, condemnation has poured in from across the country. And though locals aren't picketing in this close-knit community where high school students have slaughtered animals in agriculture classes, many quietly say they, too, oppose killing horses.
"A horse's brain is rigged differently than a cow's," said resident Cassie Gross, who says that many domestic horses are medicated with drugs that could leach into the drinking water. "A bolt to the forehead isn't a sure kill. It's not humane."
Two years after Congress voted to defund horse slaughterhouse inspections in 2005, state bans in Texas and Illinois shut down the three remaining plants nationwide, prompting many unwanted horses to be exported for slaughter in foreign markets.
De Los Santos says 158,000 U.S. horses were shipped to Mexico and Canada last year, product that could provide jobs in Roswell. After months of legal wrangling, including suits filed by animal advocates and the state of New Mexico, his bid seems to be on hold.
A state district judge this month issued an injunction to stop the plant from opening after New Mexico's state attorney general filed suit, claiming the plant would contaminate the food chain. And the latest budget passed by Congress cut funding for inspections of horse slaughter plants, a move that animal advocates say should keep entrepreneurs like De Los Santos out of the horse-killing business.
"Americans care for horses, we ride horses, and we even put them to work. But we don't eat horses in the United States. And we shouldn't be gathering them up and slaughtering them for people to eat in far-off places," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said after the budget's passage.
Wooton and others beg to differ. They say politicians in Washington and the state Capitol in Santa Fe should stay out of Roswell's — and De Los Santos' — business.
"This man has been raked over the coals so doggone long, it's frustrating for everybody," Wooton said. "Nobody loves horses more than cowboys. But society has made horses bigger than they are. They're livestock, a tool of the ranch business, not household pets."
Local leaders have some advice for out-of-state activists who pledge to protest if one horse is slaughtered here: Stay home.
"People are tired of the East and West Coast telling us what to think, do and say," said Greg Nibert, an attorney and county commissioner. "These outsiders treat the rural West as their national playground. They ignore the fact that residents' lives and livelihoods are at stake."
De Los Santos, 53, says he's been threatened and believes an arson fire at his plant was set by outsiders.
"The majority of the complaints are not from Roswell, they're from places like New York and San Francisco," he said. "But one man with a hunting rifle from somewhere in New Mexico called me and said, 'I've got a 30-ought-6, and if you kill one horse, I will take you out.'"
Chaves County authorities have met in recent weeks to scope out a security plan in case the plant opens.
"I don't have a dog in this fight — I'm here to protect the people," Sheriff Rob Coon said. "Our concern is that these protesters are going to hurt business. I don't want any human chain in front of the trucks bringing those horses in."
Coon said the controversy's worst weeks came after a video posted on YouTube showed a Roswell-area man shooting a horse in the head after taunting animal activists. An investigation determined the man ate the horse meat and therefore broke no laws.