EMINENCE, Mo. - Eminence is a type of "blink and you'll miss it" community in southeast Missouri. The population is small, just 600 people. But each year, thousands of tourists flock there to enjoy the outdoors.
"It's just God's nature to us. We come down here every year," said camper Brandy Hursh.
The tourists come to camp, canoe and fish. They also come to catch of a glimpse of the wild horses.
"We love coming down here and taking pictures," Hursh added.
Wild horses roam Missouri fields
The herd of 50 horses can be traced back to the Great Depression. People who could not afford to keep the animals dumped them in the areas around Eminence. The horses roam the fields and woods that make up the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Jim Smith operates a horse trail riding operation in Eminence. On any given day, Smith can be found driving through the backwoods keeping close watch over the herd.
At times, Smith noted, the wild horses are hard to spot. They find solace in the woods or streams, trying to stay cool during the recent heat wave.
"During the heat of the day, they go get in a dark shady spot off in one of them bottoms, creek, by the river," Smith said.
Smith and other local horse lovers created the Missouri Wild Horse League to watch over the wild horses. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law legislation which protects the horses and allows them to roam freely in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, though the herd must be capped at 50.
Smith loves the animals. But when asked how he feels about a controversial horse slaughter plant possibly opening in Missouri, his answer may surprise people.
Smith is for it.
"They need somewhere to go with 'em. These horse traders, the guys who buy sell and trade, the bottom line for them is the slaughter market," Smith said.
Slaughterhouses returning to Missouri?
In 2006, Congress cut off funding for horse slaughter plant inspections. Without inspections, slaughterhouses cannot ship horse meat to foreign countries.
Since then, the Government Accountability Office found that closing the business actually hurt horse welfare. Animals can be shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.
Then last year, Congress approved funding for plant inspections.
This summer, the controversy over a proposed horse slaughter plant in Missouri heated up. Plans were announced to reopen an empty meat packing plant in Rockville, 90 minutes south of Kansas City.
The opposition sounds off
Opponents quickly sounded off.
"Unfortunately people abandon dogs and cats every year in the United States. Are we going to create a commercial industry to slaughter them?" said Humane Society of the United States president Wayne Pacelle.
His organization could be the biggest opponent of the horse slaughter industry.
In a recent visit to Kansas City, Pacelle talked about the controversial issue. The Humane Society wants to keep the horse slaughter plants from opening in the US. The group also wants to ban the shipment of horses for slaughter to neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico.
"We have got to stop North American slaughter…don't create a big, global horse industry that's sucking up perfectly healthy horses and subjecting them to inhumane treatment," Pacelle said.
Proponents of slaughterhouses counter that they see a growing number of horses being neglected or abandoned by owners, similar to the wild herds here back during the depression.
"I know we've got 10 or 12 that are dumped out," Smith said. "We didn't have that problem till after they closed them plants."
While the issue may be heated, the future of a slaughterhouse in Missouri is also uncertain. Opponents have filed a lawsuit against the owner of the Rockville facility. At least one congressman wants to strip the USDA of inspection money again.
The Humane Society believes the answer is responsible owners caring for the animals and humanely euthanizing the ones that can no longer be cared for.
"At the end of the day, they've got to have a very difficult time finding an investor because of the uncertainty of this practice being tolerated in any community in America," Pacelle argues.
How would you feel if a horse slaughter plant opened in your area? Comment below or on our Facebook page.
For more information on Rainbow Meadows Equine Rescue and Retirement, Inc., a Kansas-based horse rescue organization, go to www.rainbowmeadowsranch.com