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Free-Living Horses - - They Are Real, Not Relics

June 23, 2005 | Horses

They have been called symbols. They have been called icons. If they die, some, say, it wipes out a bit of U.S. history. But the free-living horses struggling to survive in undeveloped pockets across the United States are not icons, any more than you or I are. They are flesh and blood, with parents, with children, with mates. And their lives, freedom, and futures are constantly at risk.

As the cattle industry grows and the government grants public land to ranching uses, free-living horses are increasingly thirsty and hungry. But rather than question the dangers posed to wilderness and free-living animals by the business of ranching, the focus has been on how to move animals without raising a public ruckus. And thus, over the years, countless horses have been snatched from their natural habitat, legally adopted into private ownership, and, not infrequently, sent to slaughter.

And the risk to their lives has just increased. A provision supported last December by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), known as the Burns Amendment to the 2005 Appropriations Bill, effectively reversed a 34-year prohibition on slaughter, by permitting older horses to be killed instead of waiting indefinitely to be adopted into ownership.

As a result, 41 wild horses ended up killed in Illinois earlier this year. Public outcry following the deaths prompted a moratorium on roundups. But the break for wild horses didn't last long.

On June 1, removals continued with a new bill of sale in place pledging harsher penalties for any buyer sending animals to be killed. Despite such measures, by the end of September, more than 12,000 horses will have been be confiscated from New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon, this year alone.

Removals began in 1973, two years after the Wild and Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted to protect horses from capture and slaughter. About 200,000 horses have been rounded up for adoption since then. Currently, according to the Bureau of Land Management, 24,000 horses wait in government-run holding pens.

Is adoption the answer?

Some defend roundups that result in adoption into private ownership as a saving grace for horses struggling to survive. But that rationale misses an inherent injustice. Free-living horses should be left free. Not only should they be safe from slaughter; they should be safe from being made into a privatized commodity.

Since the adoption schemes began, many horses have been trained by prison inmates in an initiative designed to tame horse and prisoner in the same rite. The Wyoming Department of Corrections website describes the Wyoming Honor Farm as showing how "through respect and patience even a wild animal will respond positively." Yet true respect would respect the horses' inherent interest in living on their own terms.

Moreover, once a horse is collected, the person acquiring that horse might change purposes. In April, Dustin Herbert of Oklahoma, a former rodeo clown, purchased six horses which he said would be used for a church youth program. Those horses were later sent to the Cavel International slaughterhouse in DeKalb, Illinois. A week later, as reported in the 5 May 2005 printing of National Geographic, 35 more horses ended their lives hanging upside down at the same plant after being purchased through the adoption program.

Indeed, sometimes slaughter is the claimed good purpose.

Floyd Schwieger, a retired minister and board member of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell, Wyoming says he supports the government's efforts to reduce the horse population as long as it's done without cruelty and uses old, slaughtered horses to feed the starving humans abroad.

"I would like to see the federal government simply have their own slaughterhouse", he said in an interview with National Geographic earlier this month. (Maryann Mott, Wild Horses Sold by U.S. Agency Sent to Slaughter, National Geographic News, 5 May 2005).

The meat could "be given to the poor and needy people around the world, compliments of the United States government, as a means to help alleviate the suffering in the world."

Sold for as much as 20 dollars per pound, most meat actually ends up in the mouths of the well-to-do, with Belgium or Italy being typical customers.

A matter of public concern

The Bureau of Land Management's adoption scheme appears to save horses from ending up on dinner plates, yet it has undergone serious investigation just four times: in 1987 and 2000, after animal advocates claimed mismanagement; in 1997, when Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza uncovered wild horses being shipped to slaughter, and recently, after the 41 horses - including those bought by the former rodeo clown - were killed in Illinois.

Sensing public concern, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) introduced S. 576 to prohibit horses slaughter for human consumption. In the House, Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) introduced a similar bill, prohibiting slaughter altogether. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY) also submitted two pieces of legislation: a bill to restore the 1971 Act that outlawed the slaughter of such horses for commercial purposes and an amendment to next year's budget bill that could stop tax money from going toward horse sales.

In addition, an amendment was introduced to the 2005 Farm Bill, by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV), allocating $5 million for a privately run horse center to centralize and hasten the adoption program in Nevada.

Real power? The power of the consumer

While the proposed legislation shows a good intention to save horses, it won't halt roundups. Legislators take their direction from their constituents, including influential, wealthy ranchers.

As consumers, we the public must become conscious of our own shopping habits. When speaking out for horses, and pressing for answers, we must acknowledge that the demand for ranchers' meat products at home is just as significant as the demand for horsemeat in Italy and elsewhere.

"It's time we acknowledge the connection between horsemeat and hamburgers," said Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals president. "For those who respect free-living animals, it's simply not enough to express outrage at their deaths; we must also stop supporting the profits of ranches."


Ich finde es ungerecht das was wir menschen den Pferden und berhaupt den tieren angetan haben das haben und werden sie uns ihr leben lang nicht verzeihen .Wenn es wenigstens Menschen geben wrde die,die Mustangs und andere Tiere kaufen wrden Und damit ihre art erhalten knnten dann wre ich und bestimmt auch andere glcklich. [English translation: I find it unjust what we humans have done to horses and on the whole to other animals and for this they will never forgive us all their lives. If there were at least people who would buy the Mustangs and other animals and thereby save their species then I as well as others would be happy.]


On 7 Sept. 2005, Jen Ashburn wrote: "Please do not blame only the ranchers for the horses and burros demise." Although the government doesn't keep statistics on how many cattle graze public land, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association estimates that it's somewhere up to two million, and horse protectionists say the number could be as high as four million. Compare that with the 27,000 horses now left on public land - the scale is enormous. The Bureau of Land Management claims wild horses will lead a life of starvation and dehydration on the land if they are not removed. Yet, it is livestock production which requires the bulk of water, forage and space from the Western landscape. The government rationalizes round ups by claiming the horses will overpopulate if they are left free, although it is ranchers, again, who have hunted down what once were natural predators to horses. In many places, mountain lions, wolves and grizzly bears are now almost non-existent. In addition, since cattle ranching took off more than a Century ago, more than 1,200 species have become endangered. (Eds. Mollie Matteson and George Wuerthner, "Welfare Ranching," 2002). "Blame urban sprawl. Blame the builders putting up more and more subdivisions near the beautiful and desirable mountain view." First of all, according to figures from 1997, livestock production including rangelands, pasture and the production of forage crops occupies 65-75 percent of U.S. land. At that time, urban sprawl and development accounted for four percent (USDA 1997). While figures may be higher today, it is not ranching that obstructs sprawl. As long as their is a demand for beef, ranchers will stay in business. And as long as the population continues to rise, sprawl will occur. As George Weuthner points out in his essay, "Cows Versus Condos," 'unless laws are passed to forcibly halt newcomers at state and county borders, it will be very difficult to put a lid on demand for real estate in picturesque places.' As land becomes developed, ranchers will inevitably seek to stay in business by modifying their operations, that is, buying more private land, reducing their herd size and finding outside employment to bolster their income. "Wild horses should be left free. But it is a sad fact that they may not always be that way. Wouldn't everyone here rather see them adopted than slaughtered? Why disapprove of adoption if its the only way to keep them alive?" First of all, right now, some horses taken off the land can legally be slaughtered. Under an amendment added to the Omnibus Appropriations Bill last December, horses which are offered for adoption unsuccessfully three times, or are older than ten may legally be killed. Given that more than 12,000 horses were removed this year, many undoubtedly met the qualifications for slaughter. And even before the measure was passed, many wild horses have, indeed, ended up at slaughter plants. (For reference please read, AP reporter Martha Mendoza's coverage of the adoption program in 1997). While the intention of most who adopt wild horses is noble, adoption is not a respectful option for horse that were once free-living. At the adoption site, horses are separated from their families and put into bins according to their sex. Once adopted, horses may spend years in a 20 square foot corral until they are "tame" enough to be given more space. This life of isolation is not the life they deserve.

Wild horses should be left free. But it is a sad fact that they may not always be that way. Wouldn't everyone here rather see them adopted than slaughtered? Why disapprove of adoption if its the only way to keep them alive? Please do not blame only the ranchers for the horses and burros demise. Blame the celebrities who HAVE to have a ranch out west too. Blame urban sprawl. Blame the builders putting up more and more subdivisions near the beautiful and desirable mountain view. It takes ALOT of land to sustain one horse where they live right now. Belive it or not, the BLM is trying.

I think it is so mean to kill a horse because if you are going to buy a horse why be so mean to it. It's stupid and it doesn't make sense. I wish that every one loved animals than none of this would of started. I know that a lot of horses and other animals get left on the street or get sent to the slaughter house every year. It's so mean and sad to watch an animal die because people don't take care of there animals. I agree with everyone and I wish that we could do something. It breaks my heart. I'm only twelve and I'll always love horses and I don't even have one. If I had one wish I would save all the horses in the world. Ooh I could scream,because I saw a picture on one site and I cried so bad.


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