The animal welfare problem concerning the wild horses of America has some similarities to its feral cats. This is why I have decided to write about them. People refer to the wild horses of the American West as mustangs. It is said, however, that as the wild horses are descended from domestic horses reintroduced to the continent by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century they are better described as “feral horses”.
There are 70,000 born to be wild mustangs roaming freely on chunks of public land in America known as “herd management areas” which is, as I understand it, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Many people regard mustangs as iconic to the American West. They represent freedom and perhaps the past. Nostalgia is involved. Also they are beautiful animals and all the more beautiful when seen galloping and enjoying life in the magnificent landscapes of the American West. They are probably a tourist attraction.
There are many people including passionate animal rights lobbyists who want to protect them. There are others who want to turn them into burgers. The official limit for the number of mustangs on public lands is meant to be 27,000. That number has been substantially exceeded. BLM have been rounding up the horses for years often using helicopters to corral them. They now want Congress to let them sell some of the mustangs to slaughterhouses and then on to countries where horse is eaten (e.g. France). The proposal is claimed to be in the horses’ best interests. The failure to manage the population has led to an animal welfare disaster, it is claimed.
Horses, it is said, are non-native to America. I’m told that horses became extinct in America around 11,000 years ago. Subsequently in the 16th century Spanish conquistadores reintroduced them. Therefore horses have been in America for around 500 years which is a similar timescale to that of the cat. You could argue that feral cats have been living in America for 400 years and cats are considered non-native to America and therefore wild horses should also be considered non-native if you ignore the original native species!
Animal advocates will say that BLM don’t want the horses around because they don’t bring in money. Cattle brings them money. Oil and gas brings them money. But wild horses don’t. However, oil and gas do far more damage to the environment than horses. It’s about money and therefore mustangs become scapegoats for damaging the environment.
The Executive Director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Federal Lands, Ethan Lane, said:
“… The failure to manage this population has led to an animal welfare disaster”.
What he says is that animal advocates have created this ‘disaster’. What he really means is that the mustangs are overgrazing the land and therefore damaging livestock. Food has become scarce. It’s a competition over resources between livestock and wild horses and of course the powerful environmental and ranching lobbies will win especially while Trump is the President. In the Trump administration’s budget, which is working his way through Washington, there is a proposal to lift the prohibition on slaughtering mustangs.
This is where I see once again a similarity between the feral horse and the feral cat. They say feral cats damage the environment and spread disease. Many people want to kill the feral cat as a solution to their population numbers. Others, want to deal with feral cats in a more humane and more sensible manner through TNR programs.
And this is where TJ Holmes a volunteer who works with the horses in Spring Creek Basin in Disappointment Valley says that killing feral horses is an asinine proposal.
She says that:
“You can manage those horses if you want to. It takes hard work and willpower, which the BLM and the ranchers don’t have.” (this chimes with the failure to carry out extensive TNR programs regarding feral cats)
TJ Holmes has been a proponent of injecting horses with a contraceptive protein called PZP. She claims it drastically reduces the animals’ ability to conceive. It has kept the mustang population in the Disappointment Valley area stable at 60. This has removed the need for BLM to round them up since 2011.
The government wants to slaughter them and they keep returning to this solution. TJ Holmes suggests that the government needs to deal with the ‘reproductive end’ of the problem, then it will go away.
Critics of PZP say that it is difficult to administer particularly in more mountainous and larger areas. So it’s a competition between the relatively easy route of killing and the more humane and ethical route of preventing reproduction. It is also a debate about how America uses its vast swathes of public land which amounts to some 450 million acres. Are they to remain wild or should be placed in the service of human consumption? My God, I favour the former. The country needs its wild spaces.
TJ Holmes when driving through Disappointment Valley points to a black stallion called Bounce. He is 30 years old and still grazing on the range. He’s had a great life.
“Just think of the life he’s had in this beautiful place…The idea of taking that away from him makes me so angry.”
I’m with Holmes.
My thanks to Josh Glancy of the Times Newspaper (hard copy).