It's an odd window into the vagaries of human behavior: why we revere certain animals and ban their killing while turning our backs on others that live only to provide us with meat.
The raising of animals for slaughter and the killing process itself is largely ignored by consumers. But let a story about cruelty or killing of dogs or cats hit the news, and people are outraged. There is little difference in the intelligence and sensitivity of dogs, horses or cows and pigs. We just believe some animals should be protected, even coddled, while we consider others merely meat.
The ongoing debate over the fate of the West's wild-horse herds is a case in point. The slaughter of horses was banned by Congress in 2006. The ban was lifted in 2011. Now legal horse slaughterhouses are the targets of protests by people who say wild horses, indeed all horses, should live out their natural lives somehow, somewhere.
But who is to say how and where? The Bureau of Land Managment has tried rounding up wild horses to reduce the size of herds. BLM officials for years have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to cajole Westerners, who say they love horses, to adopt the animals they've corralled. But horses and burros, in corrals and in the wild, just keep multiplying.
It seems everybody has a theory, but few have come up with any workable ideas of how to avoid leading these horses to the slaughterhouse.
In the latest development, the Navajo Nation has sent a letter to federal officials to support a New Mexico company's plan to begin slaughtering horses and exporting the meat next week. A Navajo spokesman said, although his tribe considers horses sacred animals, it seems better to have the animals killed in a regulated, humane manner than to let them starve on the range.
Erny Zah told the Associated Press that the nation's largest Indian reservation can no longer support the estimated 75,000 feral horses that are drinking wells dry and causing ecological damage to the drought-stricken range.
The tribe's support for Valley Meat Co. came as a bit of an ironic twist after Robert Redford and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson came out strongly against horse slaughter, saying, among other reasons, that they were "standing with Native American leaders" to protect cultural values.
"It's a delicate balance," Zah said. That's for sure.
Wild horses running free is a bit of Western iconography that nobody wants to give up. But until somebody finds a feasible way to keep their numbers in check, turning some of them into a usable product might be the only answer.