DeKALB -- Seventeen months after it was destroyed by fire, a controversial horse-slaughtering plant on the south end of the city should be rebuilt and operating again by December, a plant official said Tuesday. Cavel International had already received a permit from the city in December 2001 to renovate the plant at 108 Harvestore Drive. The permit came after a handful of lengthy hearings before the plan commission and city council in which animal rights activists and residents voiced opposition to the company's plans. Cavel sells horse meat for human consumption to customers in Europe and had been operating in DeKalb for 15 years when a fire, the cause of which remains undetermined, destroyed it on March 31, 2002. When rebuilt, the DeKalb plant will be one of only three such horse-slaughtering operations in the United States. Opposition to Cavel is heating up again now that the Belgium-based company is getting closer to rebuilding, with activists from across the country e-mailing city officials and local media to register their disapproval. City Manager Jim Connors said he has received from 35 to 50 of the e-mails, almost entirely from people outside the DeKalb area. He said the Community Development Department has likely received more. But in town, Cavel project manager and controller James Tucker said, "I'm only hearing support," or, at worst, that people have no opinion on the project. Once open, the Cavel plant will provide about 40 jobs, Tucker said, with wages comparable to those paid at other meatpacking plants. Among the groups with questions about horse slaughter is the Hooved Animal Humane Society, a 10,000-member organization based in Woodstock that investigates horse abuse and tries to educate owners about the work involved in taking care of the animals. The group's executive director, Lydia Gray, said that until recently HAHS saw slaughter as a "necessary evil." But a recent paper put out by the Thoroughbred Retirement Found-ation questions some of the commonly held beliefs about the practice, she said, such as that it keeps prices for horses high and is done mainly on lame or blind horses. "At this time I would say we don't have a policy (on horse slaughter) because we are revisiting it," she said. The Horsemen's Council of Illinois, which is affiliated with the horse industry's national lobbying and trade association, the American Horse Council, is similarly on the fence. "Our position is that we're not opposed to it," said the group's president, Frank Bowman. "Our membership's pretty much split on the issue 50-50." But, he added, "There's rules that Cavel's operating within. What they're doing is not illegal." He said animal rights groups have been particularly good at playing the "game of public opinion" when it comes to lobbying against the business. "This whole issue is fraught with emotional, with moral, with ethical, with scientific (issues)," Gray said. Tucker noted the horse-slaughtering business is a highly regulated one, and that Cavel has a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee on site to make sure the horses are slaughtered humanely. "We feel it's not the government's job to tell a farmer whether or not they can have their animals slaughtered," he said. Before the fire, Cavel had originally proposed building an entirely new plant near the existing one, and some residents and plan commission members worried that another animal-slaughtering operation would move into Cavel's old facility. Many local residents also were less concerned about whether horse slaughter was humane and more concerned that the plant would emit odors would hurt property values. Chris Rickert can be reached at crickert@ pulitzer.net.