CHESAPEAKE --To Dale Tolliver, eating horse meat is just plain disgusting.

'It's just wrong,' he said.

To Jean, it's delicious.

'Don't knock it til you try it,' she responded.

Tolliver owns several horses in Chesapeake; Jean ate horse meat as a child in Canada.

'I would liken it to a pastrami,' Jean described. 'It's really good.'

America's culture has a long, deep bond with horses that in many minds, makes horses untouchable: the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, Misty of Chincoteague, the Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Sea Biscuit and Mr. Ed.

In some parts of the world, like much of Europe, Japan, China and South America, eating horse meat isn't unusual. One report shows the eight most-populous countries in the world consume almost 5 million horses each year.

'It's awful, something we just don't do,' Tolliver said. 'It's an animal that you ride. I don't ride a cow or chicken. It's a pet.'

Other Hampton Roads horse owners agree.

'They become family to me and all my customers,' said Dennis Butler, who makes a living fitting horses with shoes. 'Do I think slaughtering horses is the right thing to do? No.'

'They're your pets. You treat them as such,' Dawn Franchebois said.

Slaughtering horses for their meat is big business. These same horse owners have seen that at auctions. Horses that are old, abandoned, injured or past their prime are often sold to the highest bidder. They are known as 'kill buyers' or 'meat men' who are looking to buy horses to make a buck at the slaughterhouse.

'It hits you deep in the gut,' Butler said.

Prices can sometimes be as cheap as $25 or $50.

Horse slaughtering is legal in the United States. However, there are no American slaughter plants are in operation - yet.

It was big business until it was banned in 2006 and Congress no longer funded federal horse meat inspectors.

Pressure from the public, animal rights groups, and several politicians in Congress were responsible for that ban.

that caused another problem. Since 'Meat Men' couldn't sell their horses for their meat in the U.S., more horses were transported outside the U.S. to be slaughtered -- to places like Mexico.

Some animal rights activists say reports of brutal, graphic, inhumane horse killings at Mexican slaughter plants became a big problem, inflaming people's sensitivities about humane ways to end a horse's life.

That created pressure to re-open the horse slaughtering industry in America and for the government to come up with regulations for more humane ways of putting horses down.

Because of that, the Obama administration lifted the ban in 2011. Companies see an appetite for horse meat and big markets overseas. Last year, more than 176,000 American horses were slaughtered for their meat -- a 20-year high.

However, no American plants have begun operating, largely due to the anticipated public backlash in many communities where the plants would be built.

However, now the issue is back in the headlines. The USDA has a handful of applications from companies looking to build and operate horse slaughtering facilities in communities across America. None is slated for Virginia or North Carolina.

Companies see an appetite for horse meat and big markets overseas. Last year, more than 176,000 American horses were slaughtered for their meat -- a 20-year high.

Current applications for U.S. horse slaughtering plants are from Larkspur, Colorado; Gallatin, Missouri; Woodbury, Tennessee; Sigourney, Iowa; Washington, Oklahoma; and Roswell, New Mexico.

The ones in Oklahoma and New Mexico are of particular significance. Citing jobs and potential income, the governor of Oklahoma just signed a law allowing horse slaughtering plants to begin operation there, despite public opposition. In New Mexico, the owner of Valley Meat Company has been aggressively seeking USDA approval for his processing plant ever since the federal horse slaughtering ban was lifted in 2011. He's suing the government.

These actions by companies in those communities have caught lawmakers' attention in Washington. Several members of Congress from both parties, including northern Virginia Democrat Jim Moran, have been leading the fight against horse slaughtering plants in the U.S.

Rep. Moran sent a letter to the secretary of agriculture calling on the USDA to deny any permit applications, citing public health concerns.

'Horses are not raised as food animals and are routinely given substances that are banned by the FDA from administration to animals destined for human consumption,' Moran wrote.

Several members of Congress just introduced the bi-partisan Safeguard American Food Exports Act (SAFE) that would not only ban the slaughter of U.S. horses for human consumption here, it would also no longer allow horses to be shipped outside the U.S. for slaughter.Those senators are Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

'Horses sent to slaughter are often subject to appalling, brutal treatment,' said Sen. Schakowsky. 'We must fight these practices. SAFE will ensure that these majestic animals are treated with the respect they deserve.'

That message certainly hits home for Tolliver, who has opened his Chesapeake home to a rescue horse, just to keep him from getting sold at auction and possibly slaughtered.

Perhaps it's also hitting home for President Obama, who appears to be doing an about face on this issue. In his current budget proposal, he added language to prevent inspectors from staffing slaughter houses. Without federal inspectors, horse slaughtering plants cannot operate in the United States.

For this reason, horses have a lot riding on what budget plan Congress passes.

This whole issue caught worldwide attention when traces of horse meat were found in some foods at grocery stores in Europe.

You won't find horse meat on any grocery store shelves in Hampton Roads anytime soon.

The only place where horse meat is served is at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.Like many zoos across the country and across the world, it's food for the lions.

'Horse meat has historically been used in carnivore diets for many many decades, said Amanda Guthrie, a Virginia Zoo veterinarian. 'We believe there are alto of health benefits to horse meat. It's lower in fat and it has a healthier fatty acid profile than beef does.'

'The horse meat we use here comes from U.S. animals that have been humanely euthanized,' said Virginia Zoo spokesman Winfield Danielson. 'There are a lot of horses out there and when they get older or critically injured and they need to be humanely euthanized, what do we do with the horse after it's euthanized? We can cremate it or bury it -- those are both expensive and not necessarily ecologically friendly options; so why not take advantage of that resource and use it to feed our carnivores?'

Many horse owners like Tolliver say treating horses humanely and with respect is at the core of this sensitive issue.

When asked how much he loves his horses, Tolliver responded, 'Probably as much as I love my kids.'

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