HERE’S WHAT YOU PROBABLY don’t want to take home from a horse auction. A horse with a big swollen knee or a ringbone on the front of the foot or any kind of enlargement of the ankle. A horse with pointy little pin ears poking up from his head or a horse with giant ears. A horse with beady eyes and what they call a Roman nose. A blind horse. A mean horse. An old worn-out bucking horse. A horse with a indentation, often hidden under the saddle blanket, that would mean it had knocked a cap off its hip bone, maybe by sideswiping a trailer door. A horse that’s loose in the back end and swings its hips from side to side (horse people will sometimes refer to this as “doing the Mae West”). What you do want, at the end of the night, is a horse that’s broke and gentle and sound.

So I learned from Jim Bob Thomas, an old trader I met in October at an auction in Stephenville, eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth. The town is deep in horse country. Entering freshmen at Tarleton State University arrive on campus towing horse trailers; rising hay prices cause the kind of concern that rising gas prices do elsewhere; realtors’ listings maintain a separate category for horse properties; and on the first Friday of every month, one of the state’s largest regular horse auctions takes place at a barn north of town. Roughly three hundred horses pass through the Stephenville horse auction each month: ranch horses, cutting horses, roping horses, brood mares, broncs, ex-racehorses, old ponies. Many of them end up back in somebody’s pasture, but about 20 percent go to slaughter plants to be butchered. The meat is then flown to other countries to be eaten by humans or shipped to domestic zoos (as well as to Siegfried and Roy) to be eaten by lions and tigers, while the remaining parts of the carcass are dispatched to the makers of paintbrushes, violin bows, and leather shoes.

Last year the country’s three operating horse slaughter plants—two in Texas and one in Illinois—put more than 90,000 horses to death. I’d gone to Stephenville to learn what I could about how horses wind up at “the killers,” as these packinghouses are sometimes called. (Traders who sell to the plants are in turn known as “killer buyers.”) Prior to making the trip I’d been warned by anti-slaughter activists to watch my step if I went to a horse auction. “Try not to look like a reporter at all,” I was told. “They get very violent when they think the killer buyers are getting exposed.” Some of these killer buyers, they added, were constantly in and out of jail. “A lot of them are the bottom-of-the-barrel type.”

Yet Jim Bob Thomas was more than willing to talk to me. (He also assured me he’d never been in jail.) Slight and spry, he wore starched Wranglers and ostrich boots, and his eyes were alert below the brim of a brand-new Western hat. His speech was salted with certain anachronistic turns of phrase; he first learned about the horse business, he told me, working at the Fort Worth Stockyards for “a little bitty Jew man ’bout five foot two who had a livery stable.” He’d started delivering horses to the packers in the sixties, after a plant opened in Palestine, and in time he was taking two trailerloads a week to a slaughterhouse in North Platte, Nebraska. Though he’d retired from the killer buyer business after that plant closed and was now selling cars in Fort Worth, he still came out to Stephenville every month to help the owner, Rusty Addison, run the sale. For that matter, he planned to buy some horses later that night for a few of his contacts in other states.

“There’s not a human being on earth that loves horses more than me,” he said. “I can be so attached to a horse I can’t ever sell it, but then on the other hand, when I see a horse that’s crippled, I don’t bat an eye hauling him to the plant.” If Thomas sounded a little defiant, that was to be expected. Only a month earlier, the House of Representatives had approved a bill that would effectively shut down U.S. horse slaughter plants, by making it illegal to ship, receive, own, buy, sell, or donate a horse intended to be slaughtered for human consumption “and for other purposes.” The legislation, known as the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, attracted passionate support from more than two hundred co-sponsors, as well as from Bo Derek, Willie Nelson, T. Boone Pickens, Sir Paul McCartney, Kid Rock, and other luminaries. Advocates argued that horses helped us win the West, that they’re icons, not food. “They are as close to human as any animal you can get,” proclaimed John Spratt, a Democrat from South Carolina.

Opponents of the bill were roused to equally bombastic heights, predicting that a ban on horse slaughter would mark the first step of an insidious program to regulate all household pets, including “fish in the aquarium.” The legislation was denounced as “an outright attack at animal agriculture” that had been “based on emotion.” Without the packinghouses, charged Republican Steve King, of Iowa , in just ten years we’d have a million surplus horses on our hands, animals that would be “eating our cellulose and costing us ethanol.” Moreover (though this seems like double counting), their carcasses would soon be piling up, wreaking “untold disastrous effects on the ecosystem.”

Both the bill’s supporters and its opponents represented themselves as guardians of the horses’ best interests, but those in favor spoke of horses as companions, while those opposed spoke of them more often as property and portrayed horse slaughter as a property rights issue. “We should love our horses,” said Congressman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican whose district includes the town of Kaufman, where one of the Texas slaughter plants is located. “But we should love our freedoms even more.”

At the Stephenville auction people tended to agree with Hensarling. By mid-afternoon on the day I was there, a line of horse trailers spanned the sale barn parking lot. Auction hands unloaded the animals and ushered them into a cluster of stalls under a high metal roof and into several open pens, while burly traders passed through the cafe. Thomas led me out to survey the evening’s stock. When a horse is sound and can perform some function useful to humans—a ranch horse, say, or an attractive mare that someone might want to breed—it’s likely to bring a higher price than what the slaughter plants would offer; when a horse is not up to snuff, traders judge its worth primarily on the basis of its weight, since the plants pay a certain amount per pound.

“Look at that Arabian gray right there,” Thomas said, indicating a horse stepping gingerly to the edge of its stall. “She’s skinny. She’s also blind. See how her eyes are blue? She’s worthless. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. They’re not even going to want to kill her. She’s worth ten dollars or maybe nothing. You couldn’t pay me to take her.”

At the next stall, he pointed to other “junk horses”—a “big old sucker nobody will buy”; a poor old mare that would “definitely go to the packers.” Out in one of the open pens, fifteen or so loose horses milled around in the dirt. “Every one of these horses will probably go to the packers,” he said. A little chestnut one-eyed stud. A big blocky-limbed horse with a huge knot on its leg. A charcoal-colored horse with protruding ribs. Disposed of by their owners and massed together, there was no telling where these horses had come from, whether one had been somebody’s birthday gift years ago, whether another had toiled on a ranch before going lame. Maybe the horse with the knot on its leg had once pulled a tourist hansom around some city’s downtown. Maybe the skinny one had failed at the racetrack.

Thomas seemed dismayed to see so many horses in poor condition. “Look,” he said, squaring right up to the fence and pointing to an old gray in the far corner. “Somebody has kept this old thing until it was too old and too decrepit and too poor. Somebody has starved this old horse.”

He turned back toward the barn and stomped away. “We’re fixing to have a hell of a lot go to the killers tonight.”

THOUGH HORSE SLAUGHTER OPPONENTS will sometimes put forth that the horse has never been a food animal in the United States, the claim is not strictly true. After all, this is America, and there are few things we will not try to sell. Or eat. In 1895, for instance, a group of unidentified street pushers hosted a “free horse meat banquet” in Portland, Oregon, according to a report in the Tacoma Daily News. Four years later, the New York Press reported on a scheme by a man named Bosse to hawk North Dakota horse meat in lower Manhattan. (Coincidence compelled the Press to caution readers against confusing this man with another Bosse, a French scoundrel who’d been arrested outside Long Island City “for selling diseased horseflesh, spirillum sausages and bologna full of bacilli.”) These are only reported instances, of course. One is left to imagine what other campaigns to expand the country’s culinary frontiers may have been waged in territories near and far.

Nor is domestic horse eating confined to the distant past. When beef prices shot up in the early seventies, stores opened in Hawaii, New Jersey, and Connecticut offering cheap horse meat, which housewives from Honolulu to Teaneck deemed palatable enough until the cost rose above that of beef. A decade later, a Connecticut company introduced Chevalean-brand horse meat patties in three New England naval commissaries and also posted vending carts in major cities to serve “Superhorsemeat Steak Sandwiches” (or “Belmont steaks,” as they were nicknamed by New Yorkers). The sandwiches fizzled. The last bastion of unapologetic hippogastronomy in the U.S. may have been the Harvard Faculty Club, where horse meat was a menu fixture from the end of World War II until 1983.

But it’s overseas where one discovers a hearty and long-standing appetite for horseflesh. It is fried in Spain, smoked in Sweden, simmered in Italy in a stew called pastissada, and served raw in France, Belgium, and Japan. The horse burgers at a Slovenian fast-food chain called Hot Horse make a popular late-night snack. (The English-language sections of the Hot Horse Web site are quite charming: “Come to me all the hungry and thirsty and ease your hunger with Horseburgers! Surely no dude’ll be left over hungry.”)

The two Texas plants—Beltex, in Fort Worth, and Dallas Crown, in Kaufman—primarily ship meat to Belgium and to France, where horse consumption has been on the decline of late. With its strong flavor and bright-red hue, horse meat was “the poor man’s steak” in the sixties and seventies, recalls Thierry Burkle, who grew up in Paris and is now the owner and head chef at L’Etoile, a restaurant in San Antonio. Burkle’s mother would often prepare horse meat tartare, mixed with egg and served with an endive salad. By the eighties, though, it was less popular, and many of the boucheries chevalines—“horse butchers”—went bankrupt. “Now it’s more a trend of sophisticated people,” Burkle says, “people that want to eat some exotic animal from Africa and things like that.” Asian horse eaters have picked up the slack. In Kazakhstan 340,000 horses were slaughtered in 2005; in China 1.7 million.

Back in the U.S., the idea of dining on an equine is widely reviled. Consider the case of Don Chance, a Fort Worth—area writer who contributed an article several years ago to Backwoods Home magazine (“Practical ideas for self-reliant living”) in which he defended horse meat as a “legitimate, high-protein food alternative,” provided recipes, and maintained that certain unnamed U.S. restaurants were quietly serving special-order horse meat dishes to foreign tourists—though when I reached Chance by phone, he declined to identify any such establishment. (As a kid, Chance had eaten horse on an Indian reservation, he told me, though he does not eat it today.) Response to the article was swift. Readers clogged the feedback section of the following issue of Backwoods Home with irate letters, one of which suggested that Chance himself be slaughtered and eaten.

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE THE AUCTION, on a Saturday in September, I accompanied a band of horse lovers on a mission to save a dozen paint horses from an uncertain fate. The rescuers were ardent slaughter opponents. Celebrity fellow travelers notwithstanding, at the heart of the anti-slaughter movement are people like Jerry Finch, the self-described “founder, president, CEO, and main poop scooper” of Habitat for Horses, a Houston-based rescue group. Dedicated to preventing animal cruelty, Habitat deploys some twenty trained volunteer investigators to chase down leads on horses in bad shape and, should they find them, try to persuade owners to take better care of their animals. If all else fails, they remove them to foster homes, working in conjunction with local law enforcement.

Finch had organized the trip, and he’d kindly agreed to pick me up in Fort Worth and let me squeeze into the front seat of his battle-scarred Dodge Ram—the same truck he’d driven around southern Louisiana a year earlier, locating horses after Hurricane Katrina with the help of a dashboard GPS system and plenty of coffee. (“The first place that opened up, believe it or not, was Starbucks,” he said. “Thank God.”) We towed a trailer decorated with stickers reading “Equine Rescue Unit” and “Emergency Response Unit.” If all went well, it would harbor horses later that afternoon.

To my right sat a Habitat investigator, Julie Caramante, a vivacious woman with a thick black ponytail and an oh-gosh brand of enthusiasm that betrayed her Midwestern upbringing. She and Finch had a kind of Burns-and-Allen rapport: Finch, a retiree with a broad, ruddy, well-creased face and pale blue eyes, played the gruff realist to Caramante’s chipper Minnesotan.

“I can’t wait to see these horses!” Caramante would say. “Isn’t this exciting, Jerry?”

Finch would grunt in response, or just keep driving.

Shortly before noon we reached the designated rendezvous point: a restaurant north of Weatherford called the 4C’s Country Corner BBQ and Grill. (Most of the slaughter opponents interviewed for this story were unequivocal carnivores.) We were met there by more volunteers, among them Paula Bacon, the mayor of Kaufman. She ordered a chicken-fried steak, and we settled in to wait for a man named Jimmy Fowler.

Finch had been deliberately vague about who Fowler was, or how they’d found him, or why he was getting rid of his horses. When Caramante told me that Fowler was “a man who takes chickens to Mexico,” Finch corrected her, telling me that Fowler was a man who takes chickens to New Mexico. The only other thing he would tell me about Fowler was that the man didn’t want his horses any longer, which meant that they might one way or another fall into the hands of a killer buyer. Worried that his potential seller might spook, Finch felt that discretion was of the essence. “We need to get the horses locked up and get everything settled,” he said. “And then we can ask questions.”

It had already been a long day. Finch and Caramante had left Houston before dawn, stopped a couple hours later to change a flat on the trailer, and then pressed on to Fort Worth, pausing outside a car dealership and napping in the truck while they waited for me to arrive. Yet the two comrades seemed accustomed to strenuous adventures: There was the Katrina trip, and the time they’d staked out the Kaufman slaughter plant at five-thirty in the morning. Often the individual horses they rescue aren’t bound for slaughter, since many are too skinny to be worth much, but Finch and Caramante view the slaughter process as an extreme form of animal cruelty and so agitate for its abolition as part of their horse rescue work. They make regular trips to Kaufman, where they befriended Bacon. A week before I caught up with them, they’d journeyed to Washington along with Bacon and another Kaufman couple to lobby Congress and to see the House bill passed. (The victory was long in coming but only partial; if the Senate does not take up the bill this month, it will die.) Lining up against them to petition on behalf of the packinghouses was Charles Stenholm. The pro-slaughter camp had not proved to be any great celebrity magnet and had found instead a paid spokesman in the former congressman from Abilene, who’d been the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee before Tom DeLay redrew his district and deposed him.

(Full and somewhat unusual disclosure: As I explained to Finch and Caramante, Stenholm was and is currently in the employ of Olsson, Frank, and Weeda, which is my father’s law firm. In fact, the first I’d heard of the horse slaughter controversy was in August, when I was back in Washington, D.C., for a visit and my father, standing over the breakfast table in his robe and slippers, uttered those dreaded words: “Hey, you know what you ought to do a story on?”)

At last Fowler appeared, sun-browned and a little jowly, with tufting hair under a tan ball cap and more front teeth absent than present. He seemed to enjoy talking, especially to Caramante, who has the sort of Ivory-girl good looks that are somehow unassuming and striking at the same time. They sat across a table from one another, gabbing away. The man hardly seemed skittish, as Finch had feared, so I joined them and tried to listen in. But immediately Finch sat down across from me and gave me such a startling stare that I stood back up, chastened, and moved off toward the door.

The rescue group, hauling four trailers in all, eventually followed Fowler back to his homestead, which was littered with the paraphernalia of various agricultural and mechanical endeavors: hog traps, a go-kart, the spray-painted shell of an old car. In a small pen, several black mares, a sunburned cremello filly, and three dappled yearlings waited, some of the older ones with auction tags still hanging around their necks. If you don’t spend much time around horses, it’s easy to forget how they can be at once so powerful and so obliging; their contained force was palpable as they circled, while Fowler and a couple of the volunteers tried to shepherd them toward the trailers. Fowler shouted and slapped at them, and the giant creatures scrambled through a chute and up a ramp—to freedom! Though it’s perhaps hard to recognize freedom when it takes the form of a small metal box on wheels.

After we drove away, headed for a camp outside Austin where the horses would be temporarily sheltered, Finch vented his disgust at “backyard breeders” like Fowler: “They breed and breed, and for what purpose? That guy said he was against slaughter, but he’s seen what happens. These backyard breeders are all over the place.” The resulting proliferation leaves Finch trying to sweep sand off a beach. The first two horses he bought, in 1998, were purchased outside an auction near Galveston from a killer buyer who’d picked up more animals than would fit in his trailer. He named them Pete and Smokey. Realizing that the pair had almost been turned into steaks, Finch started to examine the slaughter issue, and the more he found out, the more appalled he became.

“I am not a vegetarian,” he said. “I am not an animal rights activist—to me they’re people that have gone over the edge and think that the pigs should be free and chickens should be pecking at buttercreams. Animal rights and animal welfare are totally different things. We’re against cruelty. This business is cruel at every level.”

This was a point that had confused me when I’d first read about the horse slaughter debate. I didn’t see any hard-and-fast distinction between slaughtering a horse for its meat and slaughtering a cow, other than the fact that people are fonder of horses than they are of cows. Opponents of horse slaughter object to a horse meat plant in the same way that they would object to a dog abattoir. (According to a poll commissioned by the anti-slaughter camp, 68 percent of Americans think the plants should be shut down.) But on what grounds did they object? How, as meat eaters, did they conclude that horses were off the table?

The problem, Finch and other anti-slaughter activists maintain, is not the killing, or even the eating, of horses. It’s fine for a vet to come out and euthanize a horse by injection; it’s okay, if necessary, to shoot a horse, and if some horse owner chooses to barbecue the animal afterward, so be it. Commercial horse slaughter, however, is cruel in a way that other butchery is not. First of all, because of the scarcity of horse plants, horses are shipped much longer distances than other animals, sometimes in double-deck cattle trailers that are too low-roofed for tall horses (though as of this month it’s illegal to use double-deck trailers for horse transport). Moreover, unlike cows, horses have an extremely strong flight instinct and will sometimes resist confinement. As a result, the method by which the horse is put to death—a worker administers a projectile to the brain with a device called a captive bolt gun—does not always succeed the first time. This method has been approved as humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which in fact opposed the anti-slaughter bill in Congress, but for some that’s just a reason to be suspicious of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

I asked Finch why, if his real objection was to cruel conditions, didn’t they just devise a way to make the process less cruel?

“That’s like saying, ‘If you could invent a way for automobile driving that was totally safe, would it be all right for a two-year-old to drive?’” he answered. “Besides, horses are not raised for food in this country. It’s against our culture and against our beliefs. Our battles were not fought on the backs of pigs.”

Caramante piped up. “Sam Houston didn’t ride on the back of a pig, did he, Jerry?”

We were all agreed on that point. But in the swerve of the discussion from animal cruelty to Sam Houston’s method of transport, from ethics to some sort of cultural preference, the argument fell apart, it seemed to me, or stopped being an argument. In order to declare something illegal, surely we need a more substantive basis than an appeal to history, and merely imposing the distaste of the majority by statute would be as un-American as, well, eating a dead horse. The reasonable case against horse slaughter must in the end depend on whether or not it constitutes cruelty. Yet this question is hard to answer. Those in favor of keeping the plants open attest that slaughter is perfectly humane and warn that greater numbers of unwanted horses would suffer ill treatment if it were banned.

To properly weigh the allegations against one another, I would have to get closer to the source.

THE TOWN OF KAUFMAN LIES at the convergence of two highways, U.S. 175 and Texas Highway 243, and from there you can see the Dallas Crown plant on its low bluff, a small hodgepodge of cinder block, sheet metal, and brick. For Paula Bacon, now in her second term as mayor, it’s the wrong sort of signpost. I’d first met Bacon with the rescuers—at a rest stop I’d watched her perch on the edge of one of the trailers and croon, “Hi, baby. Hi, baby,” to the horses—and I saw her again a week later for lunch at a strip mall restaurant called Wong’s Garden Buffet. She brought along her 83-year-old father, Grandon, as she had on the horse rescue trip. Both had come to Wong’s directly from work: Bacon teaches high school English in the mornings, while her dad still goes in to P.G. Bacon Lumber Company, the hardware store his grandfather opened in 1896. The store, located right off the square in a light-blue clapboard building with a faded Pittsburgh Paints sign hung in a dusty window, looks as if it went out of business long ago.

Bacon keeps an old fortune-cookie fortune taped inside her wallet that reads “Tomorrow will be an extraordinary day for you,” and there’s something both open and willful about her manner that suggests that she continues to believe it, in spite of any past experiences to the contrary. For years she lived in “glorious Austin,” but she returned to Kaufman in 2000 to be closer to her father, after the store was held up twice. She agreed to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission, and then, when she grew dissatisfied with the way the city was being administered—“There is a good-old-boy network here, and man, is it strong,” she says—she ran for mayor.

One day, about a year before the mayoral race, she found herself riding in a van with several teachers who worked in Kaufman but lived outside town. “They started saying, ‘What kind of place is this? They have a slaughter plant of horses of all things?’ I found myself defending it, but wondering.” With the help of her best friend, Mary Nash, who owned property near the plant, she began to investigate further. She learned that in 2002 the Texas attorney general’s office had upheld a section of the state agriculture code outlawing the slaughter of horses for food (a court ruling is pending). She learned that the Dallas Crown plant had been releasing more pollutants into the city’s sewer system than its industrial permit allowed. She learned that the company, which is owned by a Belgian corporation, had paid just $5 in federal income tax in 2004. And she began to feel that she—and the city of Kaufman—had been played for fools.

(According to Mark Calabria, an attorney for Dallas Crown who lives in Kaufman and wryly refers to Bacon as “our beloved mayor,” water treatment facility records show that the slaughter plant hasn’t imposed any excess burden on the sewer system. He adds that in some years the expense of litigation with the city may have reduced the company’s bottom line—and hence its federal tax bill—but that the company pays considerable payroll and property taxes while providing some fifty jobs to the community.)

After lunch, Bacon drove me around town and out by the plant to have a look. Until recently the outdoor horse pens were visible from the highway, and activists would come with their video cameras to film the operation. But this year the plant erected a white metal fence around the property, posted with No Trespassing signs.

I still hoped to see something of the place, though, and so the next morning, bright and early, I drove back to the slaughterhouse. From the parking lot it was possible to glimpse horses in the pens below, awaiting the bolt gun. Airline shipping containers were stacked on one side of the lot. A couple of men in long gray smocks passed by. A sign on the office door warned that employees reporting to work without their smocks would be sent home without pay.

Inside, a large man chatted with a young woman sitting behind a desk. I introduced myself and asked the woman whether it would be possible to tour the facility, though I already felt confident of the answer.

The woman shook her head slowly. “Sorry,” she said.

I walked out, and the large man followed me. I tried to get a better look at the horses in the pens, but when I turned back, the large man was watching. “Ma’am,” he said sternly, pointing toward the exit.

Outside the fence, a truck had pulled up to make a delivery. The walls of the trailer behind the cab had two rows of vents at the top, through which I could make out, first, a brown ear and then, there in the dimness, a big dark eye.

FOR DETAILS OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE inside the plant, I needed an eyewitness. I tracked down a young guy who’d worked at Dallas Crown for almost a year, stacking zoo meat, pushing carcasses, and trimming cuts. (He’d been fired for absenteeism and now worked elsewhere. He didn’t want his name used. I’ll call him Mike.)

“It was a good place to work,” Mike said. He didn’t believe that the animals were abused or that the captive bolt missed its target very often.

“If they miss, the doctor—boy, he’d be pissed off,” he said, referring to the plant’s USDA inspector. “One time they didn’t knock right, they had that horse kicking and kicking the walls, hanging from his hind legs, and you could see his whole body shaking. You ever see somebody shoot a lizard with buckshot?” I told him I hadn’t. “Anyway, the doc got real mad.”

He slipped my business card between his cigarette pack and its plastic sleeve and opened his first beer of the afternoon. I told him I wanted to know more about how they butchered the horses.

“You really want to know?” he asked. I did. He started to enumerate the steps of the process: Knock ’em and it falls, he said. Chain it up by its legs. Cut the main vein. Skin the neck part and leave the skin hanging. Somebody else skins the head.

Maybe I didn’t really want to know. By the time he got to “take the male part or female part off,” I’d stopped trying to picture what he was describing.

The one thing that bothered him, Mike said, was that, to his mind, some of the other employees were too lax about cleaning their knives. A second-generation Mexican American, he’d also sparred with some of the immigrants on the line. He said he didn’t like immigrants.

We were sitting outside his mother’s house, in the shade of an elm tree, a child’s plastic rocking horse in front of us. Presently a neighbor wandered over, another young man who’d worked at the plant for two weeks and then quit.

“I don’t see why they should close the plants,” Mike was saying. “There’s horses with broken legs, horses that are sick. We eat cows, we eat beef. What are we going to do with our horses? Just let the meat go to waste?”

“Because,” the neighbor said. “It’s cruelty to animals.”

“What are we going to do with all the sick horses?” Mike asked. “Where do you think they’re going to go?”

“No matter if they’re sick,” the neighbor said. “If someone’s going to get eight years in the penitentiary for burning and stabbing a cat—it’s torture.”

“It’s not torture. People eat this meat.”

“This is our culture. We don’t kill horses. They’re pets.”

“Some people have cows as a pet,” Mike said.

“I just don’t think it’s right, not in Texas. That’s somebody’s pet.”

“Why did they sell them then?” Mike asked. “They’re not doing it out of cruelty. They’re doing it for profit.”

“The horses cry before they go in.”

“I hate animals.”

The neighbor turned to me. “That’s because my dog attacked him.”

Thus did two men not long out of high school pretty well recapitulate the quandary at the core of the horse slaughter debate: What is animal cruelty? Is it cruel to transport a horse hundreds of miles for the purpose of killing it? Is it cruel to kill it for the purpose of eating it? What are our obligations to horses—and are they moral or cultural? Does it make sense that it is against the law to “torture” your cat but not to kill it and eat it? If, as the record of our current war suggests, we as a nation can’t even agree on what constitutes human torture, then it’s hard to hold out much hope for a consensus on animal cruelty, a problem both thornier and less critical.

Regarding animals, “the question is not, Can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” wrote Jeremy Bentham in 1780, responding to Immanuel Kant’s contention that man had no direct duties toward animals. It was 42 more years before mistreatment of animals first became an offense under English law. Today, though, you’d be hard-pressed to look at the practices of large factory farms—farms, for instance, where hogs are confined for the duration of their lives within narrow cages, inside fetid, manure-loaded barns—and not conclude that we as meat eaters are systematically responsible for animal suffering on an unprecedented scale, even as our stated attitudes toward animals have grown more tenderhearted. To pluck another irony out of the pot, the section of the Texas penal code defining “cruelty to animals” lists “transports or confines an animal in a cruel manner” as one of the candidate offenses—that is to say, the word “cruel” appears within the definition of “cruelty.” Apparently we’ll know cruelty when we see it.

But will we? Those in favor of keeping the plants open often argue that it would be cruel not to slaughter horses. A ban, they say, would leave tens of thousands of lame and old and unwanted horses in America’s paddocks. “You’re going to see more neglected horses than you’ve ever seen,” said Rusty Addison, of the Stephenville auction. “The gate’s going to be unlocked and their owners are going to be dumping them. They’ll get out on the highway and it’s going to cause wrecks. It’s going to hurt people.”

I heard it more than once: If a ban is enacted, we will see legions of gimpy horses hobbling down our thoroughfares, getting struck by cars—a grim Black-Beauty-meets-Frogger scenario. While other slaughter proponents stopped short of predicting a total hippocalypse, they still held out slaughter as the lesser evil. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (i.e., horse vets) opposed the House bill on the grounds that many horses would be left uncared for under a ban. “If they stop the horse slaughter, you’re going to see horses that were in real good health—lots and lots of them will get poor,” says Trent Ward, a buyer for the Beltex plant who lives in Kaufman. “Now that’s inhumane. When they get that way, who’s going to feed them? Where are these horses going to be at? Willie Nelson gonna feed them? There’s truckload after truckload, you know what I mean?”

Those who want slaughter abolished, meanwhile, maintain that horses that would have otherwise gone to the U.S. plants will be absorbed after a ban, given that the number slaughtered represents a tiny percentage of the total U.S. horse population of 9.2 million. They point to the fact that the number of horses processed per year has declined from 342,877 in 1989 to 91,757 in 2005, without any corresponding rise in abuse cases, and have produced a detailed analysis of the consequences of a temporary shutdown at the Illinois plant during 2002 and 2003. There was no corresponding increase in abuse of Illinois horses, the study found, nor in the export of horses to be slaughtered elsewhere.

That argument would not have had much traction at the American Legion hall just down the road from Dallas Crown. I stopped in a little after five on a Friday to find the weekend well under way. At the bar, several men spoke adamantly in favor of horse slaughter. The horses at the plant were ones whose time had come, they said. Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of them “need to be there,” said a man who used to work at Dallas Crown, unloading horses. “I seen it firsthand. I don’t understand all this hoopla.”

A loud guy cut in. “What are you going to do with the zoos once you cut all the horse meat off? So are we going to just close all our zoos down? That’s what it’ll do.”

“There’s a big difference between people raised in the city and people raised in the country,” said a tall bearded man at the end of the bar. “Country people understand how things work.”

“One thing is for sure,” interjected the man who’d worked at the plant. “Through your life you’ll meet a lot more horse’s asses than horses.”

The loud guy moved closer to me but continued to shout, as if I were standing some distance away in a strong wind: “People that love animals are the ones that kill horses and dogs and cats and anything else, not all these other bullshit people!”

“NO DOGS, NO ALCOHOL” said the signs at the Stephenville auction, and in the auditorium I saw strictly barn cats and sodas, the latter in the grips of fleshy gentlemen with walrus mustaches. To walk into that room, with its Carter-era television monitors set on a ledge above the auctioneer’s booth and the Cowboy Ten Commandments (“6. No foolin’ around with another feller’s gal”) posted up on the wall along with the ads for septic plumbing and propane, was to step backward in time. Even the sallow lighting seemed imported from the past. Not to mention the fact that the auction started with mules and donkeys at six o’clock and wouldn’t end until after midnight: In this age of multitasking and general attention deficit, the notion of sitting and watching horses run through a ring for six hours straight seemed downright premodern.

Rusty Addison sat above the ring, his mouth low to his microphone, and called out in that nasal ostinato that is its own sort of folk chant. With so many animals to run through, he moved at a steady clip. A horse was brought out from the back into the fenced half-moon of dirt, Addison announced what was known about it, and Jim Bob Thomas, standing inside the ring, shouted out a base price, often slicing his arm through the air as he called it. Men with long paddles prodded the horse to the far side and shut a gate that divided the ring so that they could bring the next horse in and push the first one out at the same time. A horse was usually on its way off before the bidding on it was done.

For all that Thomas had explained about how to size them up, the horses started to blur together before my eyes. And though I’d read on an animal activist Web site that the auction situation is itself cruel—in the way that the horses are confined in pens with other horses they don’t know and prodded with paddles—I couldn’t determine much about the horses’ emotional states, other than that there was a certain prick of tension in the dusty air, what with the horses being hurried through and the gate clanging open and shut and Thomas setting them in with his sharp cries. In the ring with Thomas were the killer buyers: Trent Ward and his father, I. W. Ward, a buyer for Dallas Crown. Trent had told me that his father had taught him everything he knew about the business. The two of them stood several feet away from each other—the son a younger and sharper copy of the father—and stared nonchalantly into space, bidding on horses with subtle little waves or flicks of the wrist. By the end of the night, each Ward would buy more than thirty horses to send to the plants.

Clustered in the seats around me were old-coot traders, girls with giant rodeo belt buckles, weekend hobbyists with little children in tow, and a lone anti-slaughter activist from Germany who nearly refused to talk to me after she saw me speaking with a killer buyer. I turned to my right and to my surprise saw Jimmy Fowler, the man whose horses I’d seen rescued a few weeks earlier. (Those horses had since been delivered to Willie Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood.) At midnight, after the sale had finished, I approached him and asked him what he’d bought. A bunch of yearlings and two-year-olds, he said. He hoped to see them put on some weight and then resell them.

And if he couldn’t? I asked.

“We don’t go to killers,” he said.

“But what are you going to do with them?”

“I either buy mares or colts, and if I can’t sell a mare, I breed her and then turn her out in the pasture. Then I’ll keep breeding her more,” he said. “I had a lot more that day than what you seen.”

He then said that while he didn’t like to send his horses to the plants, he didn’t believe the government should shut them down. “That’s a communist state,” he said.

“That’s right,” another man said.

“That’s communism. If you paid good American cash money, you ought to be able to sell it to the highest bidder.”

Already it had struck me that, as with most political sentiment, peoples’ attitudes toward horse slaughter had more to do with where they were from and how they were raised than with any inside information or judicious weighing of the argument. Even more than that, their attitudes were rooted in instinct, in a gut sense they had of horses and what was best for them.

It was the middle of the night, and I stumbled out of the sale barn, dead tired, the sounds of the auction still thrumming in my ears. The trailers had all lined up again. The moon was full. A small purple sedan with feed bags in the backseat pulled alongside me, and the activist from Germany opened the door. Sitting under the dome light, she told me of months of “undercover” work monitoring auctions, of how she was never going to give up, of how it was a shame people couldn’t see all this from a horse’s point of view.

She told me to call her later for more information, but I knew that I wouldn’t. By then I knew that it wasn’t information that I lacked; it was a certain kind of horse sense.

THE CLOSEST I EVER CAME to horse slaughter itself was to stand on the plot of land behind the Dallas Crown facility and listen. The plant backs right up on Boggy Bottom, a neighborhood that at one time was also known to some as “colored town,” and Robert Eldridge, a lifelong resident of Boggy Bottom, leads a kind of tour there. He took me around the perimeter of the plant and described the foul smells that keep him from going outside his house sometimes, the manure smell and the urine smell and the warm smell of carnage. Regardless of what you think about horse slaughter, he said, a packinghouse doesn’t belong in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.

We paused directly behind the kill area. It was walled and fenced off, but we were standing on a rise and could see over the fence. There was a little hole in the wall, where pipes emerged from the building. Occasionally we saw a flash of blue uniform moving by the aperture.

And this is what we hear: Quiet. The latching or unlatching of a door. The door shuts. A horse blows through its nostrils. A rumble—maybe a chain being dragged across the floor. A sound like hooves on a metal surface. After a while someone mutters in Spanish, but we’re too far away to make out the words. A creaking, and then an unremarkable mechanical sound, like a shotgun being pumped.

“That’s it,” says Eldridge.

We hear the dragging of a chain again. Thirty or so feet farther down, a conveyor belt extends out at a diagonal from the plant, ending just above a truck. A little while later, we see a hide emerge onto the belt and be carried up to the top. It’s a mass of black and red, with a dark clotted mane, that hangs there for a moment at the top of the belt, before dropping into the hide truck like some damp, discarded costume.