Wild mustangs – majestic herds of undomesticated horses that roam free across ten US states – are a symbol of the American Wild West. Animal rights activists, though, say that government-planned roundups to control the herd’s population are nothing short of animal cruelty – and claim they have videos to prove it.
The mustangs have been protected since 1971 under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. According to the American Bureau of Land Management (BLM), there are an estimated 38,400 wild horses and burros roaming on 31.9 million acres of BLM-managed rangeland. The agency says this number is 12,000 above the number that it asserts would ensure the herds’ health and allow them to “exist in balance with other public rangeland resources and uses”, ie, there are too many mustangs.
As a result, the agency employs subcontractors to carry out regular roundups (or, as the government calls them, 'gathers') of wild mustang herds, most of which are done by helicopter. The animals are then taken to long-term holding factilities. Animal rights activists have called for a moratorium of roundups, saying they are cruel and brutal to the animals. The BLM says this stance is “untenable given the fact that herds grow at an average rate of 20% a year, and the ecosystem of public rangelands are not able to withstand the impacts from overpopulated herds”.
Video posted on YouTube by ThoughtfulNow on January 28, 2011.
Late January, an animal rights activist shot this video of a wild horse roundup in Arizona. It shows a horse, reportedly an elderly mare, trailing behind the herd and suddenly collapsing. According to the video’s author, the mare was run to exhaustion, until it was too weak to move forward. After the mare eventually got up, the helicopter flew directly over its head to steer it in the direction of an enclosure. Contacted by Reno TV station KNRV, BLM wild horse programme director Alan Shepherd found nothing wrong with the footage. Not everyone in the agency, however, seems to share his view: a spokesperson for the BLM’s Washington office said that the actions of the helicopter pilot were “dangerous and unacceptable” and would be reviewed.
Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.
“If the BLM really cared about the horses' well-being, they would do roundups the old way: on horseback”
John Holland, 65, is the president of the US Equine Welfare Alliance. Formerly a horse breeder, he now runs a private horse rescue centre in Virginia.
We’re not opposed to the principle of reasonable management of wild horse and burro populations, but we disagree completely with way it is implemented by the BLM.
Firstly, the BLM says that helicopter-led roundups are the most ‘humane’ way to capture and ‘remove’ wild horses. This is completely untrue. As a Vietnam War veteran, I can tell you that running for safety with a helicopter following you directly overhead is a highly stressful and traumatic experience. Any horse expert looking at these videos can tell you something is very wrong.
The machines run the horses over thousands of kilometres, until they are exhausted or injured. In one roundup in the Calico Mountains (Nevada) last year, two foals were run so hard that their hooves broke off, making them completely lame. They had to be put down. [The BLM recognised 134 horse deaths linked to that particular roundup, either during the capture or in holding facilities]. If the BLM really cared about the horse’s well-being, they would organise roundups not with helicopters but on horseback. But this is deemed too time-consuming and inefficient. For all its talk about “restoring the health” of wild horse herds (which, incidentally, have never yet been found especially unhealthy by horse experts), the government clearly cares more about numbers than animal welfare.
Video of mare that goes over backward and is trampled on when forced into a trailer during a 2009 roundup in Colorado. Video posted on YouTube by Carol J Walker.
Secondly, I have grown to distrust many of the numbers made public by the government agency. There has never been any scientific foundation for the 20% fertility rate they put forward, and I believe they grossly overestimate the total population of wild horses and burros. Some of their objectives, such as reducing the size of herds from of 120 horses on average to 15 horses, are frankly worrying. Fifteen horses per herd will inevitably cause inbreeding and the genetic diseases that follow, thus endangering the healthy survival of the herd.
Lastly, although the BLM puts a lot of emphasis on its adoption programmes, they only concern a small fraction of captured horses [out of 10,637 wild horses captured in 2010, 2,960 were adopted]. The rest are packed away into long-term holding facilities, most of which are in Oklahoma. The climate and pastures there are very different from the mustang’s natural habitant, and many horses never fully adapt. Adoption is obviously a preferable solution, and millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested into the programme. It seems to me, though, that the BLM just takes the money and organises more roundups.
In short, the US government spends millions of dollars each year in the cruel capture and confinement of the very animals it is supposed to protect – animals that are an essential part of the America’s natural and historic heritage.”
Video posted on YouTube by LauraLeigh001. According to John Holland, a horse that loses its hooves cannot continue living (like a dog or cat who lose a leg in an accident might). Bones in the hoof and leg activate the blood system, and if the horse cannot walk then blood will no longer be correctly pumped in its body.