The conversation was heating up among the guests of a call-in radio talk show out of Fort Myers, Fla. Up for discussion: horse slaughter -- and, more specifically, whether it should be allowed in the United States.
To start, Sue Wallis was outnumbered. The Wyoming rancher, lawmaker, published cowboy poet and horse-slaughter proponent was facing off against two vocal opponents of the practice: Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens, and R.T. Fitch, co-founder and president of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation.
The entire back and forth on the March 30 talk show was testy. But when Wallis defended a controversial horse-slaughter plant in Kaufman, Texas, that had been driven out of town by angry residents, resentment reached a boiling point.
"I got to tell you: Sue Wallis is the best thing that ever happened to our pro-horse advocacy because everything that comes out of her mouth is an unbelievable lie," Fitch said.
With that, Wallis hung up.
"When it became obvious that the only purpose of the show was to disrespect my position ... I left the interview," Wallis said later, adding she didn't know the conversation was going to be a debate.
Indeed, the horse-slaughter issue is contentious and polarizing. "For the most part, debate is useless. You have two sides that have diametrically opposed positions," Wallis said.
And depending on which side you fall on, Wallis is either a standard-bearer or a fiend.
"She's extremely strong with her convictions," said Theresa Manzella, who runs a Montana-based horse rescue organization called Willing Servants. "She's been willing to stand on the front lines of this issue when nobody else has -- and take the attacks. And they have been huge."
Wallis is among the most outspoken supporters of horse slaughter. And comrades in arms say she knows what she's talking about. The Republican state representative in the Wyoming Legislature grew up around horses on her family's cattle ranch, which she still runs today.
She also heads up Unified Equine, a company scouting locations to launch a new horse-slaughter plant now that a de facto national ban on the practice has been lifted. That company recently issued a release saying one new plant would open within the year -- even as the Department of Agriculture said it needed more time to update its standards after Congress lifted the ban.
Wallis was drawn into the issue because of her father's experience. About five years ago, Dick Wallis took a Belgian draft mare from the family ranch to be sold in North Dakota.
"You could always count on a fairly decent return for an animal you couldn't use or didn't want anymore," she said in an interview.
But Wallis was shocked when the family received a $14 check in the mail for the sale of the 1,800-pound animal. In the past, she said, horse sellers could depend on -- at minimum -- between 50 cents and a dollar per pound for a horse. In the Belgian mare's case, Wallis was expecting $900 to $1,800.
A ban on domestic horse slaughter "literally took the bottom out of the market," Wallis said.
Horse slaughter was essentially shut down in the United States in 2006 after Congress voted to stop funding plant inspections. The final remaining plants closed in 2007. But last year, lawmakers reversed the funding ban, and some groups -- like Wallis' -- have been working since then to build horse-slaughter facilities (Greenwire, April 17).
When Wallis learned about the ban, she had already been elected into the state Legislature, following the lead of her father, who served there for nearly two decades. Soon after, she was selected to represent her state's Legislature at a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Washington, D.C., where she worked on the Energy and Agriculture Committee. One of the other lawmakers introduced a resolution to allow the humane slaughter of horses.
"Because I just had this experience, I knew exactly what the process was," she said. Her work on that resolution brought her into contact with others who were working to allow horse-slaughter operations in the United States. Those connections were the genesis of the horse industry group United Horsemen, for which she served as vice president.
Wallis said she often talks to people in the horse industry about the slaughter issue. It is how she first came into contact with Manzella, a horse trainer, breeder and clinician. Manzella was on the fence about horse slaughter when she saw an advertisement for Summit of the Horse, a meeting sponsored by United Horsemen. She called Wallis for more information about the conference.
"I'm sure Sue was taken aback by me because I represented myself as a horse rescuer," Manzella said.
Manzella told Wallis she was interested in attending but couldn't afford the entrance fee. Wallis offered to waive the fee if Manzella volunteered at the conference. Manzella accepted and, after she attended the conference, said she was convinced horse slaughter should be legal.
Two things drive Wallis in her quest to allow horse slaughter in the United States, Manzella said. First, Wallis is concerned with animal welfare, and second, she wants to run a profitable business.
Wallis believes that when horses are worth more, people will treat them better: "We turned that valuable asset into a very expensive liability with no options," she said.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that local governments as well as animal rights groups have seen an uptick in horse neglect and abandonment since 2007.
But anti-horse-slaughter groups have been critical of Wallis' motives. Many fighting against horse slaughter contend it is inhumane. And anti-horse-slaughter activists say horses are considered companion animals in the United States.
"I don't know where people like this come from," Patricia Fazio, an environmental historian, longtime Wyoming resident and New York native who heads the Wyoming Wild Horse Coalition, said of Wallis. "Only in Wyoming."
For Fazio, Wallis first came on the radar in 2010, when she added an amendment to a state livestock-disposal bill that would allow horses to fall under its purview.
"We didn't know who she was at the time," Fazio said. "But then all of a sudden, she came out with this bill."
Last year, Fazio filed an ethics complaint against Wallis over her legislative and fundraising activities -- complaints that ended up getting dismissed. But Fazio said that, after the complaint, she was targeted.
"It was not pleasant," Fazio said, speaking about the complaint. "I haven't had any nasty phone calls or threats in my life. But I have had a lot of hang-up calls." And she said people have made disparaging remarks about her after her anti-horse-slaughter quotes have been published on the group's website or in the local newspaper.
But Wallis says horse slaughter isn't a top issue for her constituents.
Wyoming House Majority Leader Tom Lubnau (R), who attended high school with Wallis and who first urged her to run for public office, said that, for Wyomingites, horse slaughter is a microcosm of a bigger issue: overbearing government involvement. But he agreed with Wallis' assessment.
"I don't know if horse slaughter is an issue of broad interest in Wyoming at all," Lubnau said.
Wallis isn't focusing her efforts to build a new slaughterhouse in Wyoming. Instead, she's pushing to install a slaughter facility in Missouri, and Fazio credits the lawmaker for sticking to her guns.
"If Sue Wallis would use her enormous talents of writing and her skills in public relations in a positive way, she would be fabulous," Fazio said. "But she's using them in a grizzly, horrible cause."
To some of the practice's opponents, Wallis is known as "Slaughterhouse Sue" -- portrayed as a blood-hungry villain in cahoots with foreign companies looking to supply horse meat to markets abroad. Dave Duquette, president of United Horsemen, said it is Wallis' status as a politician that makes her a target.
But Wallis decries her critics as "extremist animal rights radicals" who take cues from Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-based community organizer and writer of the book Rules for Radicals. During the Republican presidential primary elections, former hopeful Newt Gingrich had tried to align President Obama with the writings of Alinsky.
"These are all people who have never met me. They have never talked to me. They have no idea who I am," Wallis said.
The telephone number for Wallis' ranch and her email address are easy accessible online. She said she is inundated with between 50 and 200 emails each day about the issue.
"What really pleases me and buoys me up is that that group of very ugly, very unprincipled people is very small in reality," Wallis said. For every nasty email she receives, she said, she gets between eight and 12 that are supportive.
Sometimes people who contact her are looking to start a dialogue, she said. Many times, they say they're uncomfortable with the idea of horse slaughter, but they understand her point of view better after conversing. Others don't.
Duquette said Wallis is unflappable. And when she takes lumps from critics, she comes out of it with a smile on her face.
"That's what these animal-rights groups live on -- intimidation," Duquette said. "And they haven't been able to intimidate the Wyoming cowgirl at all."
No slaughterhouse yet
Even though Wallis and her company are gunning to start a horse-slaughter facility, they are not completely in the clear.
Lawmakers in Congress are working to establish legislative barriers to horse slaughter. Measures in the U.S. House (H.R. 2966) and Senate (S. 1176) have bipartisan support, although similar language in previous sessions of Congress has stalled.
And House Democrats slipped language that would re-establish that same ban on funding for horse-slaughterhouse inspections into the current draft of the fiscal 2013 spending bill for the Agriculture Department. That bill is expected to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives later this month. Similar language does not currently exist in the Senate legislation but could be added during conference.
And although the ban is lifted for now, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said it will need a significant amount of time to update its horse-slaughter facility testing and inspection procedures (Greenwire, May 31).
"I think that some of it may be that they are trying to get the activists off their back, perhaps," Wallis said.
Nonetheless, she sees it as a challenge. And she hopes the agency moves soon.
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