By Kathleen Park, Washington Post
June 25, 2021
The Bureau of Land Management’s annual helicopter roundup of wild horses and burros in the desert southwest, set to begin in mid-July, is beginning to look like a frontier standoff between animal advocates, legislators and horse adopters of dubious intent.
The issue is familiar: Wild horses get in the way of cattle ranchers who want to control more public lands for their own herds, claiming that the horses harm the landscape. As compared to, say, the millions of domestic livestock that decimate arid public lands with high-density grazing? This would be laughable if not for the brutality such thinking leads to.
Make no mistake: Some of the wild horses and burros are adopted by people who love and want to save them. But many, many more are “adopted,” only to be ultimately killed.
A recent, devastating report by New York Times writer Dave Phillips revealed how a program intended to protect the equines actually became a slaughterhouse pipeline. Basically, the bureau created a $1,000-a-head Adoption Incentive Program in 2019 to remove 20,000 mustangs and burros from federally protected areas each year and put them in “good homes.” It seemed like a beautiful idea, except that many adoptive parties, once paid, herded their horses straight to slaughter auctions.
“This is the government laundering horses,” a lawyer for the American Wild Horse Campaign, Brieanah Schwartz, told the Times. “They call it adoptions, knowing the horses are going to slaughter. But this way the B.L.M. won’t get its fingerprints on it.”
Even though the bureau limits to four the number of horses that anyone can adopt per year, savvy dealers have found ways around such restrictions. They also have managed to ignore an unenforceable pledge not to sell their horses to slaughterhouses. Where there’s a profit, there’s a way, and lying apparently comes easily to the greedy.
The obvious question: How many wild horses and burros are too many? Currently, more than 79,000 wild horses and about 15,000 burros roam about 26 million acres in 10 states, according to the bureau’s latest figures. Ideally, experts say, both populations combined would be about 27,000. In other words, we are oversupplied.
Also too much is the cost of maintaining surplus horses that aren’t adopted or sold. Currently, about 50,000 horses are warehoused in government pastures, corrals and private ranches that the BLM rents, costing taxpayers about $60 million per year.
It won’t surprise many to learn that the wild-horse lobby is outgunned by the cattle-rancher lobby. Even so, some on Capitol Hill are taking notice. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recently wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland requesting that the department suspend its wild horse and burro Adoption Incentive Program and launch an investigation into the program.
In a similar letter, about 30 House members also asked Haaland to suspend the sales and urged passage of the Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act, which would ban horse slaughter in the United States and stop the export of American horses for slaughter abroad.
Congress can’t act soon enough. Because horse slaughter is illegal in the United States, some of the thousands of mustangs chopper-chased into a confined area this summer and fall will end up in Canada or Mexico, where slaughterhouses are plentiful and unimaginably cruel. The inhumanity toward these terrified wild creatures demands that we open our eyes. With apologies in advance:
Horses bought at auction can be crammed into double-decker trucks without water for a journey that may last as long as 24 hours. Footage obtained by the San Antonio Express-News several years ago showed horses being beaten and prodded toward the kill booth, repeatedly stabbed in the neck to paralyze them, and then hung by one back leg while their throats are slit. Their deaths are slow and excruciating, their fear and panic immense.
If such images aren’t enough to warrant immediate action, then we can hardly think of ourselves as a humane species. Congress should force the bureau to park its helicopters and allow new practices to take shape. Surely a nation of entrepreneurs and animal lovers can figure out ways to preserve and protect these iconic symbols of freedom and wild beauty.Humans and horses share a unique bond that can be traced back several million years. The suffering we are about to witness — and by our passivity, endorse — is a betrayal of something deep and ancient and profound. The wailing of tortured horses may be beyond earshot, but the fact of it should rattle our bones. No more.