Monday, September 9, 2013

wolves and wild horses


DeWitt Daggett is not a cowboy. He's a short man with curly black hair on his arms who was a geologist and an audio book publisher before he decided to move to Western Colorado and dedicate his life to horses. He's not quite a veterinarian either, but he shoes horses and de-worms them and doles out advice that's easy for horse owners to accept, because DeWitt himself is easy to accept — the kind of man that never makes you feel dumb or awkward but teaches you in a such a subtle manner that you feel as if you knew it all along. He grew up in Texas but didn't encounter horses until later in life, and yet he's got a way that makes both people and horses trust him.

The weekend that DeWitt takes me riding, I'm dog-sitting at a ranch in Crawford, Colorado, a place with 336 people and about 100,000 sage bushes. I dress for the occasion in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, then follow DeWitt's pickup through a cloud of dust to another ranch eight miles outside town. We saddle up two Palominos and ride out onto an expanse of BLM land, nothing but rolling sagebrush and hidden canyons as far as the eye can see. The sun is harsh and the ground cracked, but thunderclouds are already building up around the Elk Mountains, suggesting the promise of respite.

After talking about a lot of things -- how to "bridge" Western-style reins, the cost of college education, the Christchurch, NZ earthquake, New England vs. the West, the West vs. Alaska -- we ride silently for a while through the sea of sage. Then I tentatively bring up wild horses. In polite company, it's said, you don't talk politics or religion at the dinner table. In religious areas, it's wise not to discuss abortion. Here in the rural West, the two topics sure to create contention are wild horses and wolves.

But I'm feeling bold, and I want to know DeWitt's opinion of a Roswell, New Mexico slaughterhouse that's been fighting to become the first in the country to legally butcher horses since 2007. I don't come right out and say that, though. I ask what he thinks of wild horses.

After a pause, he clears his throat and says, "Well. Like many things associated with humans, there's too many of 'em."

After another pause that lasts at least a few hoofbeats, he adds, "And their management is political, not practical. Some people would rather see horses starve or get shipped off to Mexico than admit we need a slaughterhouse. People don't have the cohones to do what's right."

I was glad to hear this smart, respectable, horse-lovin' man defend the need for an equine slaughterhouse. A few weeks before, I'd talked to Erny Zah, a spokesman for Navajo Nation, who told me that while horses are sacred to Navajo culture, wild horses have become so problematic on the Navajo reservation that the tribe has publicly come out supporting the Roswell slaughterhouse. Since then, both Navajo Nation and the slaughterhouse have been harassed by animal rights activists.

The owner of the proposed slaughterhouse is Rick De Los Santos, shown in photographs as a lanky man with a serious handlebar mustache. De Los Santos has not responded to my phone calls, but his voice on the answering machine matches his appearance: slow and drawling, borne from the Southwest.

De Los Santos has a lot of experience running cattle slaughterhouses, and after Congress re-authorized horse slaughter in 2011, he realized he was in a position to provide a service for which there was great demand. He jumped through all the necessary hoops, and his slaughterhouse was scheduled to open in July. But then his family began receiving threatening phone calls, the building was set on fire, and a lawsuit by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights' groups further delayed the opening. A proposed equine slaughterhouse in Iowa has faced similar challenges, and recently announced that they're giving up the fight. But De Los Santos won't back down.

I grew up riding horses, and I love them. Yet horse culture in the East is fundamentally different from horse culture in the West, and after researching the state of wild horses here, I can't help but agree that this country needs an equine slaughterhouse. The BLM spends more on "managing" feral horses than on saving endangered species. There are more wild mustangs in captivity than in the wild, and even so, more wild horses than many ecosystems and human communities can support. And that's not counting the domestic horses, the ones neglected in sun-baked backyard corrals. During the recession and accompanying drought, people tried to get rid of horses they couldn't afford to keep by releasing them into the wild, where their fate was hardly better. Navajo Nation freely admits that they're forced to round up wild horses and sell them to Mexico, where they're likely slaughtered in facilities far less regulated than those in the U.S. would be. Meanwhile, many "civilized" countries in the world eat horsemeat. And by way of comparison, pigs have a higher IQ than horses.

Unfortunately, the same groups that vehemently, even violently, oppose horse slaughter for emotional reasons are lumped in the same category as the people who fight for wolf protection. And yet wolf protection is something I can get behind. For centuries, humans have relentlessly and ruthlessly exterminated wolves, and in the process wrecked the natural balance. Yet because some of the people advocating for wolf protection also want to prohibit the slaughter of wild horses, they've sacrificed their credibility with many rural Westerners, who regard them all as out-of-touch city dwellers. Their rational argument for wolves is diminished by their irrationality regarding horses.

Hearing DeWitt cautiously defend the slaughterhouse, I feel relieved. DeWitt supports slaughterhouses because he loves horses -- it's the most humane solution to a human-created problem. I tell DeWitt that I fear wolf crusaders are sacrificing their credibility and influence by refusing to accept horse slaughter, and from behind, I see his bone-colored cowboy hat nod once up and down. Then he rides on, swallowed up by junipers. 

Evening in Crawford, Colorado

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Krista.
    I recognize everything in the pic and in the words.


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