Home on the range?

We received lots of responses to my last blog post about horses and horse slaughter. When we sent out an action alert asking folks to contact their elected representatives in Washington to support the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 2966/S. 1176), which would not only ban horse slaughter in this country but also the transport of horses across our national borders for the purpose of slaughter, we received even more responses, including this one from Jim Matheson, which was forwarded by a member who took our message to the Utah congressman:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding horse slaughter. I appreciate your interest in the issues facing our country and our state, and I am glad for the opportunity to respond.


As of February 2008, there were approximately 37,000 wild horses and burros living on BLM land. Horse slaughter provides a humane alternative to a life of inadequate care. I am opposed to bills that forbid the processing of unwanted horses.


The practice of storing wild horses and burros in holding facilities that are crowded and underfunded is inhumane. Many of these animals being held by the BLM in these facilities become long-term costs to the government. Please know that I will continue to oppose bills that ban the process of unwanted horses.


Again, thank you for contacting me. I appreciate hearing from you. If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact my office.


Member of Congress

This is not a surprise. Matheson also introduced a bill that would allow states to manage wolves — that is to say, allow wolves to be hunted. Matheson, like most Western legislators, favors the interests of ranchers over wildlife, including the wild horse herds — the mustangs who have roamed the West since Cortez.

His letter gets right to the point, but misses it entirely. Horse slaughter is anything but humane when other solutions are at hand, but the rangeland that the mustangs have roamed for hundreds of years is coveted by ranchers as publicly subsidized grazing land for cattle. It is also coveted by mining interests to whom wild horses and burros are just a nuisance.

Matheson is correct in stating that it is inhumane to keep horses in overcrowded, underfunded holding facilities, but that is not the only option.

A bit of history

Allow me to back up ... way back ... to about 12,000 years ago when the first horses that had evolved in North America disappeared, possibly victims of newly arrived human hunters. Geneticists have matched ancient American equine DNA with that of modern equines and concluded that the mustang is not a feral species, but rather a reintroduced native species. Mustangs were reintroduced in the early 1500s by Spanish explorers and conquistadors. By the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 2 million wild equines across the American West. Now due the pressure of human activity, there are, as Matheson points out, fewer than 40,000.

Through the 1950s, mustangs were rounded up and slaughtered mostly for dog food as portrayed as the emblematic background story of the 1961 film “The Misfits,” which starred Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. When Marilyn’s character learns why they are rounding up the horses, she freaks out and accuses Clark’s character of being a killer. After a lot of drama, the horses are released and Marilyn tells him she wouldn't mind having a baby as long as there was somebody there to make sure the child grew up into a human being.

The movement to save America’s horses

The mustangs were misfits 50 years ago, and as with most of the humane movement, women, real and fictional, led the effort to protect them.

One day in 1950, Velma B. Johnston was driving in Nevada and noticed a truck with blood dripping from the back. She followed the truck and discovered that it was carrying horses to a slaughterhouse. By 1959, she had generated a nationwide grassroots campaign that led to the passage of the “Wild Horse Annie Act” that prohibited the hunting of mustangs with motorized vehicles. Wild Horse Annie was a derogatory name that her critics gave her but which she embraced. Velma, who died in 1979, is still a powerful symbol of the fight to protect wild horses and mustangs as part of our national heritage.

The Wild Horse Annie Act did not include Velma’s recommendation for federal protection of the mustangs, but mounting public pressure resulted in the passage, in 1971, of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. Its lofty language states:

"Congress finds and declares 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. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."

Why we need your help today

Times have changed and so has the law. Our federally protected horses are mostly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM is part of the Department of the Interior and has the thankless job of mediating the interests of wildlife and the environment against those of public use, from four-wheeling and hunting; to ranching; to coal, oil and mineral extraction. Most ranchers regard horses as competition for sparse Western range. The horses are managed by roundups and adoptions to the public. Adopters receive full title to an adopted mustang after one year, at which time they are free to sell the animal to whomever, including to a killer buyer. The BLM used to be prohibited from selling horses to slaughter, but amendments to the law now allow for animals over the age of 10 years and those who have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption three times to be sold to slaughter.

Somehow the range that only 100 years ago sustained herds numbering in the millions now can’t support 40,000.


Of course the range could support that number of horses, but we have other priorities and even the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act won’t change that fact. However, if passed, it will force us to come up with more humane solutions, such as designating and setting aside federal horse range and implementing chemical contraceptives to limit herd growth.

More importantly, H.R. 2966/S.1176 will obligate more horse owners and potential horse owners to accept the responsibility of lifelong care for animals who commonly live into their 20s or 30s.

When the easy answer, slaughter, is the wrong answer, we have to choose the right answer even if it involves work, commitment and funding. After all, we do want our children to grow into human beings.

Please act now

Take action today. Contact your representatives to ask them to support proposed legislation to end horse slaughter in the United States once and for all.

Francis Battista