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Cover Story December 23, 2004

They Kill Horses, Don’t They?



by lyle e davis


You hear them first.  A rumbling thundering sound of a herd of magnificent wild horses.


Then you see them.  You admire the rugged beauty, the grace, the sheer natural elegance of the wild, and free, horse.


Then you hear another sound.  It's a helicopter . . . flying as low off the ground, banking left and right keeping the herd in a tightly knit group.


We hear them coming . . . we hear the whinnies . . . the clattering hooves . . . snorting, grunting, frightened screams.  Those alpha mares lead the herd fearlessly, but they are beginning to doubt their ability to lead the herd out of danger this last time.  The stallions hang back, as best they can, making sure no mare or youngster slows down.  Traditionally, the stallions stay in the back to fight the danger that is approaching.  Problem is, stallions never learned how to fight a helicopter.


Historians say more than 2 million wild horses roamed the United States at the turn of the 20th century, some of them descendants of horses brought here by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. Others are the offspring of farm, cavalry, ranch and mining animals that escaped or were turned loose on public lands.


Now, the BLM says there are about 36,000 wild horses across the country, over which they have jurisdiction.  There are more wild horses in Nevada that are controlled by the state, still others in other western states.  Some are on Forest Service land.  They hope to trim that herd to 26,000 by 2006.


It's roundup time and it's the beginning of the end for these beautiful, wild horses.   Although they were supposed to have been federally protected - Congress some 25 years ago said they were "living symbols of the American West," most will wind up on the dinner table at restaurants in Europe and Asia.


As cattle boomed, competition for grazing land prompted ranchers - as well as hunters and "mustangers" - to gather, and often randomly shoot, the wild horses.


In the 1950s, Nevada's Velma Johnston, dubbed "Wild Horse Annie," started a letter-writing campaign, predominantly among schoolchildren, to save the animals.


In 1971, when poachers had reduced the estimated wild horse and burro population to about 25,000, President Nixon outlawed the hunting and killing of the animals and designated them as a natural resource.


You are witnessing the end of a family.  Wranglers hide in the bushes . . . each to be paid around $300 for each horse they catch . . .and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) staffers are there, being paid to observe.


The “Judas horse” is slapped on the rump . . . this is the horse trained to lead the herd into captivity.  The Judas horse bolts into the open gates of a trap and the herd follows.  A hidden wrangler pulls a latch and the gate slams shut.


Now, due to recent legislation, the BLM has a mandate to go out and capture more and more horses, freeing up more and more rangeland for other, more valuable uses, or so the argument goes.  Animal activists are in an uproar and are seeking reversal of the legislative hiccup that allowed this situation to develop.


Meanwhile, the BLM wrings its hands and pleads for understanding.  Resources are being stretched, they say.  25 years ago we implemented a program to capture the wild animals and put them up for adoption.  They argue that by limiting herd sizes, the program prevents starvation and furthers an ecological balance.  That may be the goal.  But what actually happens?  We shall see.


Once captured, the horses are separated by sex and age.  They will live in holding pens for 30 days.  Plans call for the stallions are gelded, treated for worms and vaccinated.  (However, most stallions are not gelded by the BLM.  It takes a special chute that can be turned into an operating table for them to be gelded.  Most wild horses are adopted as stallions and cannot be gelded till they are gentled enough for a vet to approach and handle them.) All receive freeze brands on their necks.  Horses can be adopted at placement centers or at regional centers.  The adoption contract requires the adopter must keep the horses before receiving title.  Once title is received, the horse(s) may be sold at auction or to other private parties. Often these auctions are frequented by 'killer buyers,' men who buy for the slaughterhouses.


Killer buyers will buy loads of horses, then pack them into trailers, then ship to slaughterhouses.  Inside the slaughterhouse the horse is shot in the forehead with a special stun gun.  It only stuns the horse and does not kill the horse.  It is then bled by workers, wearing white coveralls and rubber boots.  Often the horses are not dead when the butchering begins.  One can hear the screams of the tortured horses. 


Horse carcasses are rolled into the boning rooms, where about 10 workers cut them into chunks.  They are bagged, iced, and trucked off to Chicago and flown to Europe.


There are two slaughterhouses remaining in the US, both in Texas.  Beltex and Dallas Crown, both owned by foreign interests from Belgium.


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; this, in itself, is not surprising as the BLM would have no jurisdiction over the horse(s) after they had been adopted.  What is disturbing is the allegation (disputed by some in the horse world) that 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.

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 minimum fee of $125 for each (though the fee may be higher or lower.  A horse with a blind eye, for example, may go for less.  A handsome horse may draw considerably more than the minimum of $125). 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.


Legislative Power from Nevada


Herds of horses have roamed the grazing lands near Elko, Nevada, for more than 100 years. Much of this land belonged to the Western Shoshone People who signed a treaty that granted passage through the land -- but not ownership rights. Nevertheless, the government claimed the land, and leased it to ranchers who now want the horses removed so that their cattle will have more feed.


Recently, the Bureau of Land Management accelerated the removal of the horses. Many of these animals may be sent to slaughterhouses or forced to live out their lives confined to "prison pens" -- at the taxpayers' expense.


Senate Appropriations Bill Directs BLM to Sell

Wild Horses and Burros for Slaughter


This as a result of legislation that was termed by some as the  "Final Solution" for Wild Horses. 


Over 50 percent of this country's wild horses live in Nevada, whose landscape is dominated by the Great Basin -- a vast desert etched by more than 160 mountain ranges, stretching from Utah's Wasatch Range to California's Sierra Nevada.


Enter Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, with the apparent support of Senators Byron Dorgan, also of Montana, and Harry Reid of Nevada, all of whom inserted into the Senate appropriations bill a rider that directs the BLM to dispose of excess wild horses and burros "without limitation" including at livestock sales and public auctions. This action could conceivably initiate the largest wholesale slaughter of horses in North America. Here is the actual language


 "(1) In General. - Any excess animal or the remains of any excess   animal shall be sold if -


   "(A) the excess animal is more than ten years of age; or


   "(B) the excess animal has been offered unsuccessfully for adoption      at least three times.


 "(2) Method of Sale. - An excess animal that meets either of the  criteria in paragraph (1) shall be made available for sale without  limitation, including through auction to the highest bidder, at local  sale yards or other convenient livestock selling facilities, until such time as-

   "(A) all excess animals offered for sale are sold; or

   "(B) the appropriate management level, as determined by the     Secretary, is attained in all areas occupied by wild free-roaming horses and burros."


This means that all horses and burros ten years and older, and any horse or burro unfortunate to have been sent to three adoptions but not be adopted, can be dumped at a public sale. There are some rumblings within the BLM Wild Horse/Burro Program that is opposed to actively enforcing the new legislation.  Many of these folks care deeply about the wild horses and want nothing to do with expediting their possible journey to a slaughterhouse.


The bill further states that "Any excess animal sold under this provision shall no longer be considered to be a wild free-roaming horse or burro for purposes of this act." That statement dissolves these animals' safety net (which had been granted by virtue of the 1972 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act)  and without question nearly all of these animals will be acquired by the killer buyers.


Having no line item veto authority President Bush signed the omnibus bill into Law.


There are two primary points to this issue raised by animal activists


1.  The measure itself is extreme. It requires BLM to "dump" huge numbers of formerly protected wild horses onto the marketplace.


2.  The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was strongly supported by the American public and passed unanimously by Congress in 1971. Senator Burns gutted this long standing public law through a rider surreptitiously slipped at the last minute into the huge spending bill, avoiding any public scrutiny or debate.


While the above bill mandates the BLM to proceed against all wild horses and burros throughout the nation, the bulk of attention focuses on Nevada.  Here's why


a.  The Bureau of Land Management estimates 32,290 wild horses currently roam on public lands across the western United States. More than half of them - 17,679 - are in Nevada, and 14,000 remain in seven BLM long-term holding facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma.


b. 85 percent of Nevada is public land and most of it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.


c. Nevada's Velma B. Johnston, later known as Wild Horse Annie, spearheaded the popular movement that inspired passage of the 1971 National Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.  (This was the first law passed to protect mustangs and burros from being target practice for "cowboys" and from being herded by aircraft to be sold to slaughter (see the movie "The Misfits") was passed in 1971 due to a huge letter writing campaign spearheaded by Johnston, and it consisted almost entirely of letters from school children. It was and still is the highest number of letters received in Washington on any issue except the Vietnam War.)


Diana Linkous, a horseowner and trainer, living on a horse farm in southern Maryland, and a very interested and knowledgeable observer of what is happening:


"There are almost 33,000 wild horses out there. If the BLM follows this directive there might wind up being 5,000 wild horses in this country. I hate to think what will happen to the rest, as slaughter houses do not cater to the proper methods to kill a horse... they use the same methods they use on cattle, and horses are a much more nervous animal, often not being dead before they are hung and slit open. I've seen film, and the screams are horrible, the sight pitiful. (Editor's Note This comment is a frequent one by horse lovers.  And there is documentary proof.  An undercover videotape was made at a slaughterhouse in Texas.  You may wish to confirm this by going to




Warning  This videotape is very graphic and painful to watch.)


To me, the answer lies in an efficient contraceptive program for the mares. It would not be cheap, but it would be cheaper than holding thousands of older studs in government facilities. If the reproductive rate could be lowered enough, the constant pressure to round up and send out for adoption some 7,000 or more horses a year would lessen considerably.


The BLM has been piddling around for years with a contraceptive program (which works on the Maryland owned herd of feral Assateague ponies), and never put it into action.


Cattlemen in Nevada, as well as mineral interests, want fences up to keep the wild horses and burros out, and cattlemen in particular want the horses out of the publicly owned rangeland which they lease for a ridiculously low cost per cow-calf unit.


This rider can be reversed by passing another law. It would take a public campaign to do it."


Currently, two foreign-owned slaughterhouses in the United States are killing horses for human consumption. They are BelTex Corporation in Ft. Worth, Texas, and Dallas Crown in Kaufman, Texas. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 50,564 horses were slaughtered in 2003. In addition to the horses killed in the two US-based plants, thousands more are transported under deplorable conditions across our borders into Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered.


Horses are often transported for more than 24 hours without rest, water, or food, while unprotected from weather extremes in thin metal-walled trailers. Sick and/or injured horses frequently are forced onto double-deck trailers that were designed for short-necked animals such as cattle and sheep. Following years of waiting, the US government approved substandard regulations aimed at improving the conditions in which horses are transported to slaughter.


Once at the slaughterhouse the suffering and abuse continue unabated. Often, horses are left on tightly packed double-deck trailers for long periods of time while a few are forcibly moved off.

Callous workers, using long, thick fiberglass rods, poke and beat the horses' faces, necks, backs, and legs as they are shoved through the facility into the kill box.


Due to extreme overcrowding, abuse, deafening sounds, and the smell of blood, the horses exhibit fear typical of "flight" behavior - pacing in prance-like movements with their ears pinned back against their heads and eyes wide open.


While Federal law requires that horses be rendered unconscious prior to having their throats slit, recent documentation (the videotape referenced earlier) shows that repeated blows with captive bolt pistols are often necessary, causing excruciating suffering. Horses writhe in the holding stall (known as the "kill box"), legs buckling under their weight after each traumatic, misguided and ineffective blow to their heads. Death is not swift for these terrified and noble animals.


The Other Side of the Story


The BLM calls the 1972 legislation an impossible law.


The BLM has never had what it calls an "appropriate management level" of horses on the range, meaning the number of horses the land can support as determined by the government.

To do that means rounding up horses and sending even more into sanctuaries in the Midwest.  Today, seven ranches - four in Oklahoma and three in Kansas - keep around 13,600 wild horses. That's almost as many horses as what is left on the range in all Western states except Nevada and Wyoming. The BLM plans to open up to four more sanctuaries.


But is this what the act intended, to keep so many horses in a never-ending welfare system?


"We're dealing with an animal population," a BLM official said. "It's not something you get to a point and walk away." The appropriate management level, now so attainable according to the BLM, is in danger of not happening because the agency frequently runs out of money. This year, Congress allowed the BLM to borrow $7.6 million from other programs so it could continue rounding up horses this summer.


The BLM wanted to get 10,500 horses off the range this year, but only 3,400 were gathered before the horse and burro program ran out of money for roundups. The BLM still hopes to round up 6,000 horses this summer, officials said.


Critics say the program is just a numbers game to the BLM, a constant cycle of removing horses from the range and shipping them to various facilities. Some horse advocate groups even accuse the BLM of trying to get rid of herds because they want to destroy the wild horse program.


A 'win-win'


In 1988, John Hughes received a BLM contract to keep the horses on his Oklahoma ranch. He has another contract to keep 2,000 wild horses on a second ranch and still keeps cattle on leased ranches. He is paid $997,000 per year to allow these 2000 horses to run free on his ranch land.


"I love the cattle business, but it requires a large amount of capital. This is a great combination for us. There's no question about it," Hughes said. "This gives us steady income."


Taking wild horses has also been good for Wyoming ranchers Ben and Pauline Middleton, who house 28 horses at their rural ranch.


"It sounds like a good, win-win deal for everybody," Pauline Middleton said. "The horses are certainly happier when they're out of the corral. We felt we were adequately paid."


Officials with the BLM horse program in Wyoming, said they receive a few calls a month from interested ranchers, especially those who want to reduce their cattle herds.


Last year, 550 people asked to review the BLM's contracts for two sanctuaries before they went out to bid; only 18 people submitted bids.


On the contracted ranches, stallions are gelded and mares are kept separate. Sanctuaries are always full or close to it.


They are intended to house older horses, ones no one would adopt, but there are so many horses on the range that more than 2,200 younger horses have ended up at the ranches. The BLM hopes most of them will eventually be adopted, but for now they remain.


"They're beautiful on the range. They really are," said Larry Johnson, a member of the Wild Horse and Burro Program Advisory Board, a panel that advises the BLM on horse management. "You can't fault a public for wanting to protect that resource. It's the right thing to do, but at the same time, the public has to be willing to pay for it."


The BLM spends about $6.8 million a year, or $465 per horse placed in a long-term holding facility.


The bureau plans to reduce wild horse populations, which reached an estimated 42,000 in 2000, to below 30,000 by 2005.


Big Money in Slaughter


While the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has been charged with administering the multimillion-dollar federal program created to save the lives of wild horses, there is evidence to suggest that all is not succeeding as well as it could, or should.


Nothing in the law prevents anyone from selling horses to slaughterhouses once they gain ownership. While it is common for old or lame horses to go to slaughter, nearly all former BLM horses sent to slaughter are young and healthy, according to slaughterhouses.


The program's rules let anyone adopt up to four horses per year, paying $125 for each healthy animal. If the adopters properly care for the horses for one year, they get title to them in the form of BLM certificates bearing a number freeze-branded into each horse's hide.  Using freeze-brand numbers and computer records, the AP traced more than 57 former BLM horses sold to the slaughterhouses since September. Eighty percent of them were less than 10 years old and 25% were less than 5 years old. Horses are often ridden well into their twenties. 


The government spends up to $1,100 to round up, vaccinate, freeze brand and adopt out a horse. Although adopters pay a minimum of $125 for each healthy horse, a lame or old horse can be bought for as little as $25, or even acquired free. After holding the horses for a year, adopters are free to sell them for slaughter, or to private parties.  The sellers find no shortage of horsemeat buyers. The demand for American horsemeat has long been strong in Asia and Europe.


The AP matched computer records of horse adoptions with a computerized list of federal employees and found that more than 200 current BLM employees have adopted more than 600 wild horses and burros. 


In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the BLM corrals are run by Victor McDarment, whose crew rounds up horses from open ranges in Wyoming and arranges adoptions.  According to BLM database records, McDarment has adopted 16 horses. His estranged wife adopted nine. His children adopted at least six. His girlfriend adopted four. His ex-wife adopted one. His co-workers in the corrals and their families adopted 54.  McDarment said he could not account for the whereabouts of all the horses.  "I don't keep track," he said.  Some ended up with Dennis Gifford, a Lovell, Wyoming, rancher and rodeo contractor who said he has tried to breed them for rodeo stock. He said he is sure some of McDarment's horses were slaughtered.  They have to end up somewhere, Gifford said.  What the AP study did not show is that these horses were adopted over a period of 20 years, which is not that unusual for horselovers; further, some of those horses are bound to go lame and may have, in fact, gone to slaughter.  That, too, is normal.  Many horse people have complained that the AP story was incomplete and made unnecessary and inaccuate inferences directed toward BLM employees and/or their families.


The Legislators Defend Their Actions


Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the BLM, placed the measure in a 3,000-page year-end spending bill after consulting with Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., Burns spokeswoman Jennifer O'Shea said.


"We've got to get the number of animals down to appropriate management levels and keep them there, but do it in a way that doesn't bankrupt us," Burns said in a statement. "This language is a step in the right direction."


Lawmakers have expressed frustration with the BLM wild horse program. Costs have gone up as more horses have been taken off the range and placed in government-run holding facilities.


Giving the BLM the authority to sell the horses could solve agency budget problems and let it continue gathering thousands of wild horses from public lands. The agency manages herds in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.


BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington declined to comment on the congressional action.


Horse Contraception?


Horse activists also urge immunocontraception, a birth-control method implemented in the last decade by the BLM, should have been implemented earlier to cut down on the number of horses that could now be sent to slaughter with the new legislation.


Immunocontraception is a birth-control method that uses the body's immune response to prevent pregnancy.


The Humane Society of the United States endorses it and works with several public agencies to develop it. The BLM has injected 2,000 mares with it since 1992, and it has been very successful.


"If the immunocontraception system had been in force longer, these horses wouldn't be going to slaughter," activists say. "But this will make money for the BLM, and that's what matters to them."

Horse activists have come up with battle plans to combat what they see as unnecessary slaughter of horses.  They argue that the did this successfully more than 20 years ago and they believe it can be done again. 


Oppose the Bureau of Land Managements overzealous wild horse round-up policy, which often leads to unadoptable wild horses being slaughtered, by writing


The Honorable Gale A. Norton

Secretary of the Interior

US Department of the Interior

1849 C Street N.W.

Washington, DC 20240


How you can respond


E-mail, phone or fax the president. Tell him that you are unhappy with the passage of Rider #142.



" Phone 202-456-1111

" Fax 202-456-2461

Call, email or write your senators and members of Congress.


Contact information for United States Senators.


Barbara Boxer - Democrat

619 239 3884

Humberto Peraza, District Director


Diane Feinstein - Democrat

619 231 9712

202 224 9629 (Washingont)


Rob Filner - Democrat



Duncan Hunter - Republican

(619) 579 3001


Darrell Issa - Republican

760.599 5000

FAX  599.1178

Attn  Phil Paule - District Director


Contact information for Members of Congress


Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham - Republican

51st Congressional District

613 W. Valley Parkway Suite 320

Escondido, CA. 92025

737 8438   737 9132 (FAX) Washington FAX (202) 225 2558

Libby LeGrice District Director 

Press Secretary Harmony Allen


Ask your Senators and Representatives to not allow the American government to initiate potentially the largest wholesale slaughter of horses in history. This language must be repealed and other solutions written into law.


The actual legislation to which you should refer is Rider #142 in HR-4818 (The CONSOLIDATED APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2005).


"If we get 5 calls on an issue, we don't pay much attention.  If we get 25, we start, and when we get 100 we sit up and take notice."  Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, Marble Falls Town Hall Meeting, Saturday, June 7, 2003.

Other Sources on this issue

(an email from W. Lamm)



Feel free to list my email address:  

and/or the web site for the LRTC Wild Horse Mentors


Take care and thanks for your coverage of this issue.  Not only is it a terrible law, but the sneaky, underhanded way it was slipped into the spending bill smacks of everything most Americans hate about today's politics!


Willis Lamm, President

LRTC Wild Horse Mentors  


For a listing of adoption centers for wild horses/burros



Wild horses, by state, for 2003


Here is a breakdown by state offices of wild horses and burros removed and adopted through the Bureau of Land Management program in fiscal year 2003.


·        Arizona: 0 horses and 444 burros removed; 174 horses and 128 burros adopted.

·        California: 1,106 horses and 624 burros removed; 788 horses and 258 burros adopted.

·        Colorado: 3 horses and 0 burros removed; 150 horses and 38 burros adopted.

·        Eastern States: 0 horses and burros removed; 1,904 horses and 357 burros adopted.

·        Idaho: 16 horses and 0 burros removed; 103 horses and 21 burros adopted.

·        Montana: 14 horses and 0 burros removed; 134 horses and 41 burros adopted.

·        Nevada: 3,938 horses and 148 burros removed; 121 horses and 3 burros adopted.

·        New Mexico: 0 horses and burros removed; 853 horses and 163 burros adopted.

·        Oregon: 303 horses and 0 burros removed; 225 horses and 62 burros adopted.

·        Utah: 375 horses and 0 burros removed; 141 horses and 28 burros adopted.

·        Wyoming: 3,110 horses and 0 burros removed; 188 horses and 1 burro adopted.


Note: An additional 201 horses and 83 burros were adopted through the national office.


Source - Bureau of Land Management























A young colt, recently captured from a wild horse herd. Under the new legislation, what is to become of this young horse?