Oklahoma lawmakers approved a bill on Tuesday that will allow horses to be slaughtered in the state for human consumption in other countries.
The state Senate passed the measure in a 32-14 vote, sending it to Republican Governor Mary Fallin who is expected to sign it into law. Fallin's office did not return requests for comment.
The bill became an emotional issue, pitting the United States Humane Society and animal rights activists against livestock interests led by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, the state's largest farm organization.
The debate in Oklahoma, where slaughtering horses for human consumption was made illegal in 1963, was characterized as a "property rights issue" by State Senator Eddie Fields, a Republican cattle rancher from Wynona who sponsored the bill.
Allowing horse slaughter will benefit horse owners throughout the state, he said.
Every year some 160,000 horses are shipped from Oklahoma to Mexican slaughterhouses, according to Skye McNiel, a Republican from Tulsa who sponsored the horse legislation in the state House.
She said the ban on horse slaughter in Oklahoma had led irresponsible owners in the state to simply abandon their animals in pastures or forests when they no longer wanted to care for them.
Having unwanted, aging horses euthanized and buried can cost from $500 to $1,000, according to McNiel.
Mike Spradling, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, said the bill would not lead Oklahoma ranchers to start raising horses exclusively for slaughter because this would never be as profitable as raising cattle.
Agriculture producers nevertheless believed it was important not to let animal rights activists dictate how privately owned livestock, including horses, were handled.
"Tomorrow it could have been beef or poultry," he said. "No matter how you look at them, they're still an animal. The people who had the most pushback on this don't even own a horse."
Horse slaughter in the United States effectively ended in 2006 when Congress eliminated funding for horse meat inspections, forcing horse owners wishing to sell their animals for slaughter to ship them to Mexico or Canada.
Congress lifted the ban in 2011, but no new horse processing plants have been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Legislation is pending in Congress to ban it once again.