The cement-floor holding rooms and massive freezers are nearly ready for the horses, two years after fire destroyed the only horse slaughtering plant in Illinois and one of only three in the nation to process the meat for human consumption.
This month, Cavel International Inc. expects its rebuilt plant on the outskirts of DeKalb to begin moving as many as 100 horses a day to slaughter and then to European butcher shops. But whether the plant's new floors ever echo the clatter of hooves could depend on Illinois lawmakers.
The business has gotten caught up in the emotionally charged question of whether horses should ever go from the paddock to the plate.
"If in their culture they eat the meat, let them get it from France," said state Sen. John Cullerton, who plans as early as Wednesday to begin pushing through a bill to outlaw the slaughter of horses in Illinois for human consumption.
Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, proposed the ban after learning Belgium-based Cavel planned to restart its DeKalb operations, the only U.S. plant outside Texas to slaughter horses for human food.
About 50,000 horses are slaughtered in the United States each year for human consumption overseas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Before the fire, Cavel slaughtered 15,000 horses a year at DeKalb. It bought horses at auction for $300 to $400 each, killed them and sent the meat to Europe and the rest of the animal to rendering plants to be turned into fertilizer, glue and other products.
Cavel routinely received "nutty letters" from animal rights activists, but the fire did not appear to have been set, said Cavel general manager James Tucker.
Thoroughbred horse racing officials have spoken against the practice, actress Bo Derek has lobbied for a ban, and anger has grown since the news that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand may have died in a Japanese slaughterhouse two years ago.
Two bills are pending in Congress that would ban the slaughtering of horses for human consumption. California banned the practice in 1998.
A ban in Illinois "would certainly help nationally and send a very strong message and maybe keep them from popping up somewhere else in the country," said Chris Heyde, executive director of the National Horse Protection Coalition.
Much of the debate centers on how people see horses: as a companion animal, like a dog, or as livestock, like cattle.
"Can you imagine if we had a plant to kill dogs for human consumption?" Cullerton asked.
On the other side of the issue, politicians say it is no accident that Cullerton and Rep. Robert Molaro, another lawmaker who has sponsored a bill to ban horse slaughtering, are from Chicago, where the only horses typically seen carry police officers or pull tourist carriages.
If horse slaughtering is banned, owners could be forced to pay hundreds of dollars to destroy ailing horses, said state Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski, a Republican from the rural Illinois district where the slaughterhouse is situated.
"There will be even more cases of abuse and starvation of the animals," he said.
Sheryl King, who heads the equine studies department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, agreed that a ban on horse slaughtering would lead to more abuse. "You're going to see more horses abandoned. They'll just starve to death," she said.