DeKALB - This agricultural town is nicknamed Barb City because the spiky wire was perfected here. But the mayor receives postcards from angry animal activists saying it should be called the city of barbarians.
DeKalb is home to 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.
The state banned horse slaughtering last month, and a federal judge could rule as soon as today whether Cavel International Inc. can stay open while it appeals. A temporary order allowing it to operate expires after today.
"It's a black mark on the community. It's a stigma,'' said Gail Vacca, who moved her horse-training business away from DeKalb because she said owners were worried their animals would be stolen and sold to the plant. "DeKalb is a lovely community. It's horrible they've been stigmatized by this nasty industry.''
Cavel lawyers say the Illinois law violates the interstate and foreign commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution because it also bans importing or exporting horsemeat for human consumption.
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, general manager James Tucker said.
Just off of Interstate 88 near a UPS packaging center and U-Haul pickup site, the white building with blue trim doesn't stand out, except for black sheeting draped on a fence to shield from view the horses as they are delivered to the plant.
Mayor Frank Van Buer said as long as Cavel follows local zoning rules, the city has no say in plant operations, which fall under federal and state regulations. But as a former university economist who has lived in Asia and Africa, he said he understands that other cultures eat foods unfamiliar or even unappetizing to Americans.
"I'm not very supportive of this move to try to regulate the sale of any kind of meat. Some people are vegetarians, and some people like different type of meat,'' Van Buer said.
But he said he has been deluged with thousands of postcards, e-mails and letters from people saying that slaughtering horses is inhumane and they want the plant closed.
Julie Kiefer-Bell, who lives about a mile from Cavel, volunteered her time to get the state ban on horse slaughtering passed and has worked with advocates to promote a pending federal ban.
For a time, she became so emotional whenever she passed the slaughterhouse that she drove to a UPS store in a neighboring town rather than the one next to the plant. An artist who used to teach at Northern University Illinois in town, Kiefer-Bell said she grew to love horses as a child on her family's North Dakota farm.
She sees a difference in horses and the cows, cattle and chickens raised specifically as livestock. Good homes could be found for many of the animals bought at auction by Cavel, she said.
"These are magnificent animals that love and trust,'' she said.
Meanwhile, groups that have lobbied for bans on horse slaughterhouses, such as The Humane Society of the United States, say the nation has no tradition of killing horses for meat, and shouldn't be doing so to satisfy foreign consumers.
They argue that horses' skittish nature makes the way they are stunned and killed inhumane. They also object to what they described as overly crowded trucks used to transport them to Cavel.
When the Texas plants were still open, about 88,000 horses were slaughtered in 2006, said Steve Cohen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are about 33 million cows and 100 million pigs slaughtered every year in the United States, he said.
Cavel employs about 55 workers in DeKalb, has a $2 million annual payroll, and generates about $30 million in foreign trade revenue, Tucker said.
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. According to the Society for Animal Protective Legislation, which has pushed for a horse slaughterhouse ban, the average cost of euthanasia and disposing of the body is $225.
Tucker said he understands that some people have a very emotional bond with horses, but believes a vocal minority is pushing for a ban. He said the company follows federal regulations for moving and killing the animals.
"We're a great agricultural country. Here we have a resource we can turn into food to feed people,'' he said. "It's a valid recycling of that resource.''