Horses are back in the news—and it’s not good news.

A federal appeals court this week temporarily halted plans by two U.S. companies to begin packing plant operations at facilities re-designed for processing horses.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver issued a temporary injunction barring USDA from providing inspection for horse plants in New Mexico and Missouri, which were days away from opening.

The ruling comes just days after U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo in Albuquerque, N.M., dismissed a lawsuit by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights activist groups alleging that USDA failed to conduct proper environmental studies when it issued permits to Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., and Rains Natural Meats in Gallatin, Mo., to slaughter horses for human consumption.

HSUS lawyers filed an immediate appeal and received an emergency injunction from the Appellate Court halting the plants’ anticipated opening.

HSUS officials were quick to claim victory.

“Horse slaughter is a predatory, inhumane business, and we are pleased to win another round in the courts to block killing of these animals on American soil for export to Italy and Japan,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, we are redoubling our efforts in Congress to secure a permanent ban on the slaughter of our horses throughout North America.”

Blair Dunn, who represents Valley Meat Co. and Rains Natural Meats, noted that the order was temporary.

“We know the 10th Circuit will follow the law and allow my clients to proceed as soon as our side is considered,” Dunn told the Associated Press. “The plaintiffs have misstated the law, the facts and the science. We look forward to a quick decision when the facts are considered and the District Court’s careful decision is reviewed.”

Valley Meat Co. owner Rick De Los Santos has spent two years trying to secure approval to re-open his packing plant, a former cattle plant that was converted to handle horses. In 2006, Congress banned funding for federal inspection of horse plants, effectively banning horse slaughter. Funding was restored in a 2011 vote, but USDA did not approve permits for any horse plants until this summer.

Tough argument to make

This is a difficult dilemma for industry. On one hand, the two meat companies should be permitted to begin operations. They’ve complied with the regulations. Congress has lifted its de facto ban on harvesting horses. And there are compelling reasons beyond mere economics why horses are ultimately better off if their owners have options other than shipping them thousands of miles to slaughter in Mexico or Canada, or simply “disposing” of them, as reliable reports have documented is happening by the thousands.

Yet a significant majority of Americans believe that horse slaughter represents cruel and unusual punishment. They view horses as pets, or companion animals, and accord them levels of loyalty, intelligence and personality far greater than other large, grass-guzzling mammals.

Hollywood doesn’t make movies starring cows who win races, earn millions for their owners and become iconic sports legends.

More importantly, reasonable, thoughtful people have articulated arguments against horse slaughter that don’t echo the “horses are just too beautiful to kill” mantra activists always trot out. As one letter writer to the Dallas Morning News phrased it, “Slaughter is not the solution to . . . horses that are being starved and abandoned. This problem will only continue until we create laws to restrict overbreeding, protect horses from abuse and neglect and require responsible ownership.”

Arguably, it would a terrific solution to a whole lot of problems if society could command compliance with rules governing standards of animal ownership, with all that entails.

But if legislation (or law enforcement) were capable of effectively changing people’s behavior in regard to animals, then I’d argue we ought to get started on that mission—not with horse slaughter, but with child abuse. How about “creating laws to restrict breeding, protect children from abuse and neglect and require responsible parenting?”

Sounds ridiculous in that context, doesn’t it?

Truth is, laws don’t solve the problem of neglect and irresponsibility, whether we’re talking about horses or humans. Humane horse slaughter is, in fact, a better way to ensure that horses don’t die because their owners can afford to keep them, or that they don’t suffer the trauma of long-distance transport, only to be slaughtered under suspect conditions of which nobody approves.

And yes, there is economic value is selling hides and meat, which is the essential incentive for every other “responsible” initiative that activists demand. No matter how holier-than-thou they pretend to be, HSUS—like every other activist group—goes after causes that can trigger meaningful fund-raising.

Without a revenue stream, they can’t stay in business, any more than a for-profit company could, but that reality doesn’t sway public opinion.

In the end, we have to ask: Can horse slaughter ever be positioned as something positive in the minds of American consumers?

The answer to that question carries more import than any court ruling ever will.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.