I.G.H.A. / HorseAid's Bureau of Land Management News
by: John M. Glionna, Times staff writer
Los Angeles Times Copyright 1998 / The Times Mirror Company - Monday, December 21, 1998 / Metro Desk
RIDGECREST, Calif. -- The pale morning sun still hovers low over the horizon, but already Gene Nunn is in the corral, whispering to the wild horses.
The 20 young stallions are skittish and distrustful, snuffing and whinnying as they back themselves into a corner of the dusty pen, their collective breath misting in the dawn cold.
"You're not gonna like this, I know that," Nunn says in a low and easy voice. "But it's brandin' day. It's a job that's got to be done."
All day long, Nunn and his helpers inoculate and brand wild horses at this desert ranch run by the federal government's Bureau of Land Management-- handling 60 in all before the sun moves across the darkening December sky.
Part of this lifelong cowboy feels guilty about the work.
"These horses were all running free a month ago, probably seen a total of five human beings all their lives," he said. "This here is their introduction to captivity. And they're all scared as hell."
Nunn is the lead wrangler at the BLM's Ridgecrest Regional Wild Horse and Burro Facility--one of two state pens where herds of feral animals captured from public range lands are readied for public adoption.
Over the years, the staff of four wranglers at the Ridgecrest facility in eastern Kern County has seen countless horses and burros brought in from the range and adopted by people patient enough to work with wild creatures. The painstaking branding process helps the agency keep track of the animals after adoption.
But after decades of working with wild animals, the wranglers have begun to second-guess their instincts: not about the horses, but about their adopters.
Recently, the BLM's $16 million-a-year wild horse and burro adoption program has come under fire from animal activists who say the agency's inattention and mismanagement allowed countless wild horses to be sold for slaughter.
Last fall, the BLM settled a lawsuit filed by the Fund for Animals and the Animal Protection Institute of America over its treatment of wild horses. The agency agreed to a host of new safeguards to protect some 44,000 horses and burros that run wild across 10 Western states.
Since the program was begun in 1972 following the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 175,000 wild animals have been placed with adopters who pay a fee of $125 for each. Before receiving title, adopters must demonstrate proper care for the animal for one year.
The BLM says it needs to thin out the wild herds to keep the animals from reproducing to the point where they crowd public range lands and risk driving themselves into extinction.
In tightening its reins over the program, the BLM now requires potential adopters to pledge under federal penalty that horses won't be sold for slaughter. And the agency pledges to conduct better follow-up once horses are adopted.
In the past, animal activists say, the BLM has allowed commercial traders to adopt hundreds of animals at a time--horses that were eventually sold to feed an international market for horse meat. The agency also failed to follow up on countless adopted horses and had no idea of their eventual whereabouts, they said.
A Sad Legacy
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, the BLM over the last 25 years has lost track of 32,000 wild horses after their adoption; 90% were eventually sold to slaughter, according to the wire service.
The BLM denies the claim. But a recent study conducted by the agency found that in 1995 and 1996 alone, 700 wild horses adopted through its program were sold for slaughter.
Mary Knapp, a BLM spokesperson in Washington, said that each year 266,000 horses are slaughtered at packinghouses nationwide--including wild and domestic animals and former racehorses. "So we figure that 700 is a pretty low percentage," she said.
Activists say it's too many.
"The BLM has simply not been doing its job," said Howard Crystal, an attorney representing the Fund for Animals. "When it passed the wild horse and burro act 25 years ago, Congress said that saving these wild horses was one good way to preserve the pioneer spirit of the American West.
"The notion is that these animals represent something about this country that we want to preserve and protect."
BLM officials say they are now trying to do a better job of preserving that heritage. The agency has assigned an investigator to follow up on horses in California after they're adopted.
There is also a new agreement with slaughterhouses to report anyone who tries to sell a horse bearing a BLM brand. Slaughterhouse owners acknowledge that they're now on the lookout for such sellers.
"If we get a mustang in our corrals and there's no certificate, or there's a BLM brand, we will simply not kill the horse--it's not worth it to us," said Oliver Kemseke, vice president of Dallas Crown Inc., a slaughterhouse in Kaufman, Texas.
Slaughterhouse owners, he said, have agreed to report such attempted sales to the BLM. How many times has he called?
Said Kemseke: "I think I can count it on one hand."
In the last decade, agency statistics show, about 150 people nationwide have been prosecuted for selling a BLM horse for slaughter.
The Ridgecrest wranglers know they've played a part in letting these wild animals down. They have on occasion allowed adopters to take home four or more animals at once as a way to move less-desirable older horses.
Said Nunn, expressing frustration with agency bureaucrats, many of whom he says have never seen a wild horse: "We've shot ourselves in the foot."
Not the Perfect Answer
Cathleen Doyle believes wild horses belong in the wild.
But the founder of the California Equine Council and co-author of a state ballot proposition passed this year outlawing the sale of horses for slaughter knows there are cowboys and commercial horse traders who disagree with her.
She says she has met sellers who have loaded 50 wild horses into double- decker trucks and driven them to packinghouses--horses purchased through a BLM adoption program she would like to see abandoned.
"This program is a quick-fix answer for people involved with wild horses, but it's not the answer for the horses," she said. "They're wild. They don't belong in backyards and stables. Or in slaughterhouses."
BLM officials say profit margins are small when adopted horses are sold to slaughterhouses, and that large volumes would be necessary to make significant money.
However, not all wild-horse owners who sell their animals to slaughter are commercial traders. Some are well-meaning but naive cowboy wannabes who find out too late they can't handle a wild horse.
"The BLM gives horses to people who shouldn't have anything living in their possession," Doyle said. "After they mistreat the animal, they say "Yeehaaa! I can't handle this horse.' Then they move them right into auction and slaughter."
Advocates in California hope the recently approved proposition will help halt the killings. The measure prohibits the sale of horse meat for human consumption and outlaws sending horses out of state to be killed for use as human food.
As part of its new law, California will post $10,000 rewards for information on anyone brokering a horse--wild or otherwise--for slaughter in the state, hoping traders will turn each other in.
"Is this law gonna stop some fly-by-night cowboy who wants to shove a couple of horses in the back of his gooseneck and run them across state lines to slaughter?" Doyle said. "The answer is no. But it has taken an overt legal industry [selling wild horses for slaughter] and made it criminal so these creeps can no longer function in light of day."
Animal activists in California are pressuring the BLM to make good on its pledge to protect wild horses. Earlier this year, the agency canceled an adoption event at Pierce College in Los Angeles when advocates threatened to picket.
While he wants to see no horse go to slaughter, adoption program spokesman Dave Sjaastad said there's an irony to the public's reaction to the issue. "There's no problem when hunters kill Bambi. But eat horse meat in California and you're classified a murderer. But the fact is that animals live and animals die."
Meanwhile, the horse and burro work continues at the 57-acre Ridgecrest ranch. Last year, 220 horses and 80 burros were adopted. Similar numbers were reported at the state's other adoption site in Susanville.
Each spring, the Ridgecrest wranglers roam federal lands in California's southeast corner, scouting wild horses for their program. Using helicopters and walkie-talkies, they employ animals known as Judas horses to help lure wild- running herds into makeshift corrals.
Few Go Quietly
Over the years, the wranglers have come to appreciate the sheer beauty and independent sprit of the wild horses--whose first instinct against danger is to run. Failing that, they buck and kick, often bloodying themselves and other horses in the narrow branding pen. Many panicked creatures have attempted to jump the 8-foot wall. Recently, one broke its neck trying.
Running wild horses through the narrow corridor is indeed a violent business, as the animals kick and bash their heads against the wooden corrals, whinnying wildly as they fall on their backs.
One horse--a mix of Appaloosa, pinto and sundry other breeds--barrels down the narrow chute of the branding pen. Its almond eyes wide with fear, the 1,000-pound animal kicks at a mechanical door that closes behind it.
Quickly, the 62-year-old Nunn reaches through a side opening to mark the animal with a painless freeze brand. Then he examines the horse's teeth, prodding a metal bit into its mouth like some determined frontier dentist.
"Two!" he shouts, calling out the horse's age.
All day long, the cowboys talk to the horses.
"Be soothed," Nunn says, wearing spurs and a sweat-stained Stetson, patting the sweaty back of one animal.
"Quit bein' a jerk," wrangler Dan Anderson tells another horse. "The longer you mess around, the longer this is gonna take."
After the brand is placed, the mechanical door opens and the horse bolts into the big corral, another wild animal ready for adoption.
Watching the big horse run, wranglers say they are more vigilant about watching over who comes calling for their horses. They watch the way prospective adopters look over the horses, trying to better sort the legitimate horse owners from the illegitimate traders.
"We bring these animals here in good faith and it's not right they get put to death like that, no matter what," said Nunn. "Nobody likes to see a good horse go to hell in a handbasket."
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