Civilization was built on the backs of wild horses. From the very first encounters with the majestic four-legged creatures, humanity was able to tame them enough to achieve a delicate relationship that continues to this day. Currently, the descendents of the wild horses that early man tamed continue to roam around the world, including in the western United States. The population of wild horses continues to grow, inspiring many of those affected by their presence to call for stronger regulations regarding their removal by the government, as well as the widespread support of slaughtering them, negating much of the American spirit behind them. The courage of the American west defined our nation’s character and because of the freedoms established in the explorations of original settlers we are able to stand up for our liberties today. In the cradle of the old west, our manifest destiny was achieved and a free country evolved out of the wild. Roaming free in this very wilderness, the wild horse has become the embodiment of our American bravery and vigor for life. They symbolize the raw will to survive and the powerful drive of liberty.
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Wild horses live mostly throughout the Great Basin Desert, a huge stretch of land which includes nine western states and about 300 mountain ranges. These majestic creatures originate from Spanish settlers and have occupied North America’s western frontiers since the 1600s. By the mid-1700s wild horses had become vital parts of the Native American community and Native American Horsemanship was one of the most respected occupations. During the 19th and 20th centuries, overgrazing by sheep and cattle caused the once ideal grass prairies to become arid. The short grassy fields were provided the perfect environment for supporting herds of bison and eventually wild horses. Horses abandoned by trappers, pioneers, explorers, miners, and ranchers found this prairie land too and were able to grow because of the grasslands (Hyde).
Horses have been deserted throughout American history, and today we face the challenge of managing their expanding populations. Even from when the Native Americans were forced into reservations, thousands of their horses were sent back to the wilderness. Later from the Civil war to the 1930s, the US Calvary released Morgan, Thoroubred, and Arabian stallions into wild herds in order to “harvest” their offspring for profits. Mustangs, the wild horses of the Great Basin Desert area, which could be sold provided a large profit for ranchers of the area and this practice has grown into a controversial issue. About 1 million of these horses were sent abroad to help fight foreign conflicts and wars as a result of “breaking” mustangs with stallions—no horse returned but many Americans got rich (Kerson). After the invention of the automobile and the poverty of the Depression, horses were no longer necessary to man’s survival and so their value decreased. Many unwanted horses were abandoned from farms and ranches and a fair portion were sent to slaughter houses.
As the popularity of horses decreased, wild herd populations grew and eventually had to compete for grass and water with domestic livestock. Ranchers shot wild horses on sight from 1920 to 1960 in order to decrease such unmanageable numbers of animals, and they felt that wild horses were a genuine threat to their livelihoods. The open range was closed, grazing districts added, and grazing permits were allocated in 1934 with the Taylor Grazing Act. The Taylor Grazing act was established to “stop injury” to public rangelands from horse grazing and sought to “provide for orderly use, improvement, and development.” The Grazing Service and ranchers despised horses on their lands and wanted to banish wild horses from grazing areas. By the end of World War II 77,000 wild horses were taken from public lands to control their population size. The injustices toward the wild horses had only just begun at this point.
Mustangs at this point had become an inexpensive meat as pet food, and were also used in fertilizer. Pet food processing plants began hunting mustangs and after only a few years drastically reduced their numbers in all areas that they could roam. Without the horses, grazing land became available for ranchers and horse meat was an inexpensive solution for processors. The handling of the mass slaughters of wild horses has, however been described as “bloody, brutal, and repulsive” (Mustangs and the Emergence of 'Wild Horse Annie’) and as completely inhumane. Not only were the horses captured by airplane and killed in slaughter houses, but they were becoming close to a new extinction.
The famous Velma B. Johnston, also known as “Wild Horse Annie” lead a campaign to stop the slaughtering of wild horses after seeing a truckload of injured horses near her home in Nevada. She raised awareness about horse treatment, and in 1971 convinced Congress to pass the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This law prevented wild horses and burros from being caught for slaughter and forced livestock owners to either claim the horses they already had, or surrender their ownership. After a set time the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) became responsible for protecting and handling any remaining horses and those still in the wild. Rather than send the mustangs to slaughterhouses to keep their population sizes down, wild horses became available, after being given any needed medical attention, at BLM Wild Horse Facilities where wild horses could be adopted (Mustangs and the Emergence of 'Wild Horse Annie).
After over thirty years of grazing in peace without the danger of being sent to the slaughter houses, the laws changed once again for the wild horses. In 2004 the BLM wanted to reduce the number of wild horses from 37,000 to 28,000 in order to manage the population (Mott). The horses themselves have few natural predators and their population size can increase dramatically from year to year according to BLM. Each year the BLM would round up horses that became available for adoption at adoption homes, homes that already had 24,000 horses to manage.
According to Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns “These animals live in poor conditions that often lead to their deaths, and without proper management this will continue to happen” (Mott). Senator Burns himself attached an amendment to a spending bill that would allow for the sale and slaughter of horses older than ten years and those that have been offered for adoption unsuccessfully more than three times. The bill, passed in December 2004, removed the laws set in place by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. The bill was designed to reduce the number of horses in government-run facilities and the roughly 20 million dollar cost per year to care for them (Mott). Despite government intentions and the efforts of anti-slaughter lobbyists, horses still continue to get slaughtered and have become a key battle line in the war between animal rights activists and commercial ranchers.
Because of the sensitive nature of slaughtering the horses, there have been passionate arguments for both those in favor of slaughtering the horses and those against. Those that claim the ever-expanding horse population is a nuisance and destroy land continue to make their case to legislators and have been successful in lobbying states to pass laws protecting the slaughter of wild horse. According to one such important supporter, Ron Cerri, of the Rebel Creek Ranch in Nevada and president-elect of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said that the economic situation made slaughtering the horses virtually the ranchers’ only option: “Ranchers would prefer horses be adopted but euthanasia may be necessary to keep their numbers down” (“Animal-Rights Groups Protest Wild-Horse Cull”). However, to counter such actions, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put forth massive media campaigns and likewise lobby prominent politicians for assistance. Thus far, they have been instrumental in convincing celebrities and at least some influential politicians to take up the cause against horse slaughter.
In 2005, a bill to ban horse slaughter was introduced to Congress, coauthored by prominent U.S. Senator Robert Byrd. For six decades, Byrd has thrown his support to many animal causes, and his efforts in response to the horse slaughtering issue has been extremely fruitful, though the wheels of the government continue to move slowly. One of three bills currently in Congress related to horse slaughter, the bill would prohibit the commercial slaughter and sale of wild horse and burros (“Robert Byrd named Peta's Person of the Year”). For his efforts, Byrd was even named 2007 “Person of the Year” by PETA, who leant their official endorsement of the bill, along with the endorsement of American legend and icon of the American southwest, Willie Nelson. With political and popular supporters on their side, activists against the slaughter of horses have plenty of fuel and energy to continue crusade.
Though PETA is a large organization responsible for many successful protests and lobbying against horse slaughter, the wide scale nature of the problem has inspired many regular everyday people to take up the cause. As recently as early July of 2008, activists and ranchers clashed repeatedly in Nevada over horse slaughter. Unfortunately for many of the protestors, as well as people like Sen. Byrd and Willie Nelson, the United States continues to permit the slaughter of horses. Citing the overpopulation of wild horses in the West, the considerably large amount of wild horses the federal government has rounded, budget problems and the high cost of caring for the animals, federal officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management believe they have no choice left but to kill the animals they have rounded up (“Animal-Rights Groups Protest Wild-Horse Cull”). This proposal has the horse advocate community in an uproar, claiming that the drastic measure is merely a reflection of the Bureau’s poor management of the wild horse situation. Because the government fails to let the wild horses roam free and round them up, many cite the roundups as a cause for the proposed mass killing.
According to Chris Heyde, the deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute based in Washington, D.C., “the roundups left too many horses for the public to adopt, requiring the agency to contract for more private long-term holding facilities” (“Animal-Rights Groups Protest Wild-Horse Cull”). As the state with one of the largest population of wild horses, Nevada allows a management level of 27,000 wild horses, while the state has around another 30,000 in holding facilities. Like so often in the debate for and against horse slaughter, it seems to be a case of business interests against moral objections, and more often than not, business interests have won. More than anything else, this speaks of a social problem greater than the issue of horse slaughter itself.
The wild horse represents so many things to those with even a limited knowledge of American history, as well as the history of humanity. Until only a century ago, the horse was a pivotal instrument in society, allowing humans to communicate and travel faster than anything else. While the need for horses decreased with the rapid advancement of technology in the industrial age, their significance remains. Wild horses helped define the American push westward, and symbolize a freedom that is intrinsically American.
The slaughter of horses, even if they are considered superfluous and a nuisance to a few wealthy ranchers, is fundamentally egregious in a country that was built on the backs of horses. Holding them in facilities and going on elaborate and costly roundups likewise seems like a waste of taxpayers money in the name of a few. Though the majority of the horses rounded up are adopted, it remains that it is simply not reasonable to roundup incredibly large numbers of wild horses and expect them to be adopted by people that will care for them. Whether legitimately from poor management or hidden obligations to the horsemeat lobby, the government has seriously mishandled the issue of wild horses. The arguments for and against the slaughter of animals make it difficult for a rational person to ever do anything but oppose their slaughter. If the fundamental reason for horse overpopulation is because they are not rounded up and slaughtered, then there is a slight chance that supporters of the slaughter are correct. However, there exist many means to keep the population down, and according to Lacy Dalton, president and co-founder of the Let 'Em Run Foundation horse advocacy group, the government can also make efforts “to step up birth control and legislation to provide tax breaks to large landowners willing to let horses roam on their property” (“Animal-Rights Groups Protest Wild-Horse Cull”). If everyone like Lacy Dalton had land to provide for horses and a kind heart, the issue may dissolve into oblivion, though the population of wild horses may also grow to numbers previously unseen. That is why there is no easy answer to the issue of wild horses, and the debate rages on.
The tumultuous history of wild horses has landed them in many places. From an invaluable aspect of life for Native Americans and pioneers to an airplane of devalued caucuses for processing plants and certain ranchers, these wild horses have experienced the breath of humanity. They have seen protestors fight for their treatment, and have experienced landowners taking control of grasslands. The wild horses once symbolized our American courage and spirit for freedom, and today they call on us to use our rights to give them a voice.
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