A New Mexico company seeking to open a slaughterhouse for horses fired an employee after a video he made showing him killing one of the animals then taunting animal welfare advocates triggered an outcry.
Tim Sappington, 54, will no longer work for Valley Meat Inc. because of his unprofessional conduct, said A. Blair Dunn, a company lawyer. The plant's owners received threats and "don't want to add fuel to the fire," he said.
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Sappington also may may face animal cruelty charges over the video, said Bobby Pierce, the deputy director of the New Mexico Livestock Board, an Albuquerque-based law enforcement agency. Sappington was the only employee of Valley Meat, near Roswell, which is seeking to become the first company to run a horse-slaughter plant in the U.S. since 2007.
"It's extreme cruelty, a penalty, to maliciously kill an animal," said Pierce, who said he believes charges will probably result from the investigation, which began yesterday. Valley Meat said it is evaluating Sappington's continued employment.
Posted on the Internet several months ago, the video was widely circulated among animal-welfare activists this week after a March 19 Bloomberg News story on Valley Meat that featured Sappington. The video shows Sappington looking into the camera, addressing an expletive to animal rights activists and then firing a pistol-like device between the eyes of the horse, which falls to the ground trembling.
"We're horrified by the video, and we are glad to hear that there's an investigation going on," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the U.S. in Washington. "It appears this was made for publicity's sake and to taunt animal lovers."
Sappington, who said he eats horse meat two to three times a week, said he killed the animal for food. The full video, which wasn't posted online, shows him skinning and gutting the animal, too, he said in a telephone interview before the company fired him.
"I killed that animal for my consumption," Sappington said, before referring calls to an attorney. "If I had shot that thing in the guts or the legs or beat it and left it in the pasture for the coyotes to get at, it'd be a different discussion. I shot that for my human, my personal, consumption."
It is legal to kill livestock for food, Pierce said.
"If he claims he was killing it for his own food, the investigation would take a different turn," Pierce said.
Dane, whose organization opposes horse slaughter and is supporting a bill in Congress to ban the practice, said the video shows "a callous disregard for the life of an animal." Horse slaughter is cruel and unnecessary and the meat from the animals may not be safe because of drugs given to horses during their lives, he said.
"If it indicates the type of person who will work at Valley Meat, we are seriously concerned," Dane said of the video.
The company, which previously processed cattle at its facility about 8 miles from downtown Roswell, could begin slaughtering horses and shipping the meat to other countries as soon as three weeks, Dunn said March 15. The company is one of several that have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide inspectors so that they can begin operating. A federal law barring funding for the inspections lapsed in 2011.
Horse slaughter has been an emotional issue among animal- welfare advocates in the U.S., where eating of horse meat is rare and surveys show most Americans oppose the practice. Still, many farmers and ranchers say humane slaughter is necessary to dispose of unwanted animals.
While Sappington's comments were "crass and unacceptable," the video doesn't show anything illegal and should not change plans at Valley Meat, Dunn said.
"He's not associated with Valley Meat in this instance," Dunn said. "Our understanding is that this was on his own time and on his own property."
Dunn said the owners of the company have received bomb and death threats since it became known that they planned to open a horse-slaughter plant.
"Making threats doesn't work; making stupid videos doesn't work either," Dunn said. "This adds nothing to any discussion of horse slaughter."