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CHICAGO - A federal judge in Rockford on Thursday extended a temporary order allowing a Northern Illinois horse slaughterhouse to remain in operation while it challenges a state law that would force it to close.

Cavel International Inc.'s site in DeKalb is the last remaining plant in the United States where horses are slaughtered for human consumption. Except for a portion sold to U.S. zoos, the horse meat is shipped to be eaten by diners overseas.

In late May, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law banning the import, export, possession and slaughter of horses intended for human consumption.

Soon after, U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Kapala granted a temporary restraining order preventing state and DeKalb County officials from enforcing the ban while he considered a lawsuit filed by Cavel claiming the Illinois law is unconstitutional.

That order was due to expire at midnight Thursday.

But following a three-hour hearing, Kapala extended the order allowing the plant to stay open for 10 more business days, according to the judge's chambers and attorneys for several animal-rights groups granted "friend of the court status'' in the case.

Rebecca Judd, an attorney for The Humane Society of the United States who attended the hearing, said the judge's order runs through June 28, unless he makes a ruling in the case before then.

Cavel lawyers say the Illinois law violates the interstate and foreign commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. They argue its closure would deprive about 55 people of jobs.

"It's very difficult to prevail when challenging the constitutionality of a statute, but we are very confident that the statute is unconstitutional and we feel we presented a strong case to the court,'' said Cavel attorney Phil Calabrese.

Two other U.S. plants, both in Texas, closed earlier this year. A federal appeals court upheld a Texas law banning horse slaughter for the sale of meat for food, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

The Cavel plant has been in operation in DeKalb for about 20 years and slaughters about 1,000 horses a week, according to plant officials.

Those who believe horse slaughterhouses should be legal say they pay $300 to $500 for horses that are older, neglected, retired or otherwise marginalized. Without the slaughterhouse, they say, there would be more cases of neglected or abandoned horses because some owners won't pay the cost to have them euthanized.

Groups that have lobbied for bans on horse slaughterhouses say the process is inhumane. They also argue the nation has no tradition of raising horses to be killed for meat, and shouldn't be doing so to satisfy foreign consumers.

"We're pleased that the judge is taking it under consideration that we're able to operate for a little while longer,'' said Cavel's general manager, James Tucker. "We hope this decision goes our way.''

Tracy Silverman, an attorney for the Animal Welfare Institute, said she was disappointed by the extension of the order because it allows Cavel to continue slaughtering horses and "that is against the will of the people of Illinois, based on the legislation that was recently passed.''

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