THE PLIGHT OF THE AMERICAN WILD HORSE
An American icon that once thrived now fights for its freedom.
According to the dictionary, the word plight is defined as an unfortunate, difficult or precarious
situation. When it comes to the wild, or feral, horses in America, that term fits like a glove. While once thriving in population and leading our people on the journey to expand into the West, today their future remains in the balance. When it comes to the information about what is happening in the round-ups, horses being slaughtered for meat, and what is being done to save them, there is a lot of controversy. One thing is for sure: the American wild horse has become the center of a battle, with their lives, and our icon at stake.
An American Icon
It is hard not to think of the growth of the American West without the involvement of horses. They were used to cross expansive lands and explore uncharted territory. They carried families and carriages on their own destiny and beyond. They carried our soldiers through each historical battle the country has engaged in. Their beauty and characteristics are majestic in nature and many would suggest even unmatched.
The American wild horses, which are actually feral horses, because they are descendents from once domesticated ones, are called “mustangs.” They have been roaming the land, primarily in the western states, for centuries. But it was only in the last century that people began to notice that there was a problem. A once-thriving population was being culled down to eye-brow raising numbers, causing many to fear what would happen if this continued. It also prompted people to begin a fight to save them.
A sense of relief was brought to those who fought to save the horses, when the government passed The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. The mission of the act was to provide the protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on the American public land. The Senate and House of Representatives declared in the act that “…wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
In 1971 the people of this country realized that there was a disturbing problem with what was going on with the wild horses of our land. Fast forward 39 years later and the American wild horse does not appear to be any better off and many would argue that their situation is even worse. So just how did we get here?
What Changed and Why
After the act passing in 1971, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) became the primary body that would oversee the wild horses’ populations and management. The power they have includes being able to round them up and hold them in pens or sell them at auction. Problem is, while they believe they haven’t rounded up enough and are reporting the populations are over 10,000 more right now than they can sustain, others would say they have taken away too many and it is decimating the population.
According to the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, around by 1900 it is estimated that there were around two million wild horses in America. Today, there are only around 33,000 of them left. While the BLM reports that they round them up in an effort to manage the land, yet there has now grown to being over two million head of private livestock, such as cows, who are grazing on that public land. Although the BLM disagrees, many argue that the horses have really been rounded up in an effort to allow for the cattle grazing, so that the cattle are not competing with the horses for food and water.
According to the BLM, from 1971 through 2007, there have been 182,186 wild horses rounded up and adopted. Each year thousands of horses are rounded up, penned and/or sold in public auctions. As of February 2010, there were 13,600 mustangs in corrals and another 22,600 held in Midwestern pastures, where they receive food and care in the short term. One of the problems with this is the holding costs of caring for these animals, which was about $29 million in 2009. The BLM also reports that wild horse herds can double in size every four years, because they virtually have no predators, which makes it that much more important that they continue to do round-ups.
Much of the controversy surrounding the round ups and adoption involve what happens to the horses once adopted. While the BLM does not sell the horses to slaughterhouses for meat rendering, the evidence is there to support the idea that a lot of them are ending up there once adopted.
Horse Meat Popularity
The BLM states that they do not sell any horses to “killer buyers,” or those people that attend horse auctions with the purpose of buying them only to ship them to processing plants to be turned into meat. But just how much do they know about the people sitting in that audience, adopting the horses?
Horse preservation groups suggest that there indeed are people who buy the horses at auction, with the purpose of turning them into meat. And even those who claim to buy them as pets could in turn sell them to someone looking to send them to slaughter. Some people sell their horses not knowing that the person is a buyer, whose job is go around and buy horses to support the meat industry.
“We were planning on attending the auction anyway and heard that a man was coming to buy several horses to ship to Canada for slaughter,” explains Roxanne Hicks, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who attended a North Carolina horse auction and adopted a female named Big Mama.
“The man was there and he bid on her $500, we bid $1,000, and he bid $1,100. When we went to $1,250, he quit and we got her,” adds Hicks. “We have had her ever since, about six years now, and she is retired pretty much, she is a wonderful pet. The man in question bought six horses that day.”
Many people may not be aware of the fact that there is a big demand for horse meat. Until recently, America still had three horse slaughter plants running, two in Texas, and one in Illinois. All three plants were closed by the end of 2007. The plants were foreign-owned, slaughtering the horses in America, and shipping the meat to other countries, such as France, Belgium, and Italy. In 2006, when all three plants were active, United States Department of Agriculture records show that they slaughtered 91,000 horses that year, with the bulk of the meat being exported, with some of it being sold to the country’s zoos to feed their carnivorous residents.
In November 2011, President Obama signed into law allowing the resurrection of horse slaughter plants in America, essentially paving the way for the killing of what is estimated to be over 100,000 horses per year.
Many of the zoos still feed their large cats and birds of prey horse meat. The Denver Zoo, for example, fed nearly 13,000 pounds of horse meat to their resident animals in 2008.
With the horse slaughter plants closed in America, some believe there are other meat processing plants that are continuing to slaughter horses, although they are not open in discussing the issue. But the two main places that horses are being shipped to for slaughter are across both borders, to Mexico and Canada. The Canadian government reports that in 2006 they exported 10,500 metric tones of horse meat, with the largest portion of that, 3,800 metric tones, going to France.
Horse Meat Controversy
In America, horses are not only seen as an icon of the country, but they are also pets. Because of this, it raises a lot of controversy when it comes to the consumption of them. In France, horse meat is considered a delicacy. In 2008 alone they killed almost 16,000 horses for consumption, with 7,000 of them being imported from abroad. Even so, some restaurants are beginning to drop it off their menus because of the divisive issues that surround offering it.
Also, taking effect April 2010, the European Union has made it a law that only chemical free horsemeat can enter the country, slowing down the number that will now be imported, because those companies from North America are usually given chemicals, such as a wormer and medications.
Not all the horse meat consumption is taking place abroad, however. Dining on horse meat has been becoming increasingly popular in America as well, despite it being illegal in some states.
In March 2010, an upscale Los Angeles restaurant called The Hump was found to be illegally selling whale and horse meat, which led to the restaurant closing its doors. Additionally, in October 2009, the “USA Today” reported that South Florida was seeing a jump in the horse meat market as restaurants were quietly serving it up. They also reported that 17 butchered horse carcasses had been found in Miami-Dade County that year.
While selling horse meat in Florida is legal, as long as it is properly stamped, it is illegal to steal or improperly slaughter them. They reported that horse meat sells for $10-20 per pound, depending on the cut and run as high as $40 a pound if the supply is short.
What’s Being Done
When it comes to what is being done in an effort to help the dwindling wild horse population or the increase in horse meat consumption, it’s another area of controversy. The BLM will still be doing their job to round up horses, in an effort to manage herd sizes, as well as the land. Horse preservation and animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), will continue to fight to save the horse and help try to find a peaceful solution.
President Obama has called for a $12 million increase for the wild horse and burro program, making his 2011 budget proposal for the BLM $75.7 million. The budget also calls for an additional $42.5 million for the purchase of land for a wild horse preserve. The BLM has stated that “the current path of the wild horse and burro program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment, or the American taxpayer.” They have proposed a new comprehensive long-term plan to put the wild horse and burro on a more sustainable track, although his administration has also made US horse slaughterhouses legal once again.
Their plan includes managing herds, by using aggressive birth control methods (a 22-month vaccine proposed by the HSUS), establishing new wild horse preserves (particularly in the Midwest and East), and providing special designations for selected treasured herds in the West.
The birth control measures would potentially save tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars that would otherwise go to rounding the horses up, holding, and then adopting them out. Additionally, the president of the HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, testified before the U.S. National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee in 2009 to support a bill that would restore a ban from over 35 years ago, that would prohibit the commercial slaughter and sale of the American wild horse, as well as provide more protection for them. The bill, called Restoring Our American Mustangs Act, has already passed in the House and is awaiting a Senate vote.
Additionally, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act was introduced to the House in 2009 and has been referred to a subcommittee for review. This bill, if passed, would put a ban on slaughtering American horses for consumption, as well as make it illegal to export live horses across the borders to be slaughtered.
Most of the people in America have not been aware of everything that is taking place with the wild horse population. Upon learning of it, many are not happy and feel that something must be done to provide protection. There are some, however, that feel there is nothing wrong with what is taking place and that horses should not have any special protection, citing that other animals such as cows, bears and deer are not offered such protection.
One thing is for sure that most of us can likely agree upon when it comes to these majestic mustangs. They are a part of our country’s history, culture and as the government pointed out in 1971, they really are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West. They still do contribute to the diversity of our land and enrich our lives. We just don’t know what role, if any, they will play in our future.
A predator, according to the dictionary, is one that preys, destroys, devours. The BLM says that the wild horse has virtually no predators, which helps their population increase so robustly. Yet the evidence would suggest otherwise. It appears as though the only predator that the wild horse has, is man.
How You Can Support the Horses
- Help raise awareness about the issue by telling others and writing letters to the editor.
- Contact your state representatives to support the current bills being considered that would protect the horses.
- Visit the HSUS site, at hsus.org, to sign a petition supporting the legislation.
- Support horse preservation organizations and humane societies as they work to protect the horses and change laws.
- Express your concerns, if you find local restaurants serving horse meat.
- Adopt and provide a good home for a horse, if you are able to.
- Provide support to sanctuaries that take in and provide homes to the horses.
Where You Can Find Additional Information
YouTube.com – There are many videos regarding this issue. Search for the following titles: “Saving the America Wild Horse,” which is narrated by Peter Coyote and Cheryl Crow, is a 27-minute movie that covers the issue, including showing video footage of round-ups, offer interviews, and more. “Humane Society of the United States Investigates Horse Slaughter,” also demonstrates important information regarding horse slaughter.
Bureau of Land Management – Check out their site at blm.gov and on the home page you will find a link for the “National Wild Horse and Burro Program.” Here you will find information on the BLM’s position, facts about the program and more.
Humane Society of the United States – Visit their site at hsus.org and do a search for horses. They have a lot of information available, including on the current legislation efforts, news and more.
American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign – Their site is at wildhorsepreservation.com, provides a great deal of information about the issue, including what happens during a horse round-up, problems, statistics, and videos. You can also sign up to receive e-mail updates on the issue.
Author bio: Jacqueline Bodnar is a freelance writer who spent almost a decade living in Nevada, and was in awe every time she had the pleasure of seeing a mustang.
American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. The Numbers. <http://www.wildhorsepreservation.com/numbers.html>
Bureau of Land Management. President’s Budget Calls for $12 Million Increase In Wild Horse and Burro Program. <http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/wild_horse_and_burro/national/news/wild_horse___burro.html.
Bureau of Land Management. Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Pop. as of Feb 28, 2009. <http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Planning_and_Renewable_Resources/wild_horses_and_burros/pls_herd_area_statistics/pls_states_populations.Par.58877.File.pdf/08_pop_pls.pdf>
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Humane Society of the United States. Horse Slaughter. <http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/horse_slaughter/>
Humane Society of the United States. HSUS President Testifies at Congressional Hearing in Support of Wild Horse Bill. March 3, 2009. <http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2009/03/pacelle_testifies_for_wild_horse_bill_030309.html>
Reuters. In France, horse falling off restaurant menus. December 15, 2009. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5BE52420091215 >
Rocky Mountain Rider. Zoo Diets & Demand for Horse Meat. April 2009. <http://www.rockymountainrider.com/articles/0409_zoo_diets.htm>
SFGate.com. Horses still can be killed for food – meatpackers got rules changed. April 3, 2006. <http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-04-03/news/17292373_1_horse-slaughter-horses-for-human-consumption-horse-meat>
USA Today. South Florida sees rise in illegal horse meat market. October 6, 2009. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-10-05-horse-meat_N.htm>