Much has been made of recent news reports as well as a recent lawsuit by animal rights groups over the BLM's Adopt-a-Horse or Burro program. Allegations have been made that great numbers of these animals have been diverted to slaughterhouses by both unscrupulous adopters as well as BLM employees. While I don't claim to be an expert in these matters, I have had an interest for some time in the BLM wild horse and burro programs, I own a few of these animals, and I would like to offer a more balanced perspective.
Before we start plunging a sword into the BLM we must remember that it is an extensive organization, covering the entire country, which is charged with a whole host of responsibilities. Like virtually every other federal agency, BLM is feeling the pinch of deficit reduction austerity, so it is continually being asked to accomplish more with less staffing and money. It would not be unexpected in any agency of this size for some events to take place which would draw public criticism. The questions I would raise include, "Are these problems endemic, are they widespread and can they be reasonably corrected?"
Some news reports would suggest that literally hundreds of wild horses are being illegally sent to slaughter. While I feel that even one horse being diverted this way is too many, I have a hard time accepting the massive abuses suggested in these news accounts. I have been in public safety for over 23 years and have seen both excellent and atrocious reporting of incidents in which I have been directly involved. In one instance I was so badly misquoted that what was printed had the direct opposite meaning of what I had actually said and subsequently I had to defend myself in a public meeting. I have reached the point that I will seldom make a statement to the press unless it is in writing so I can prove later what I actually said.
There are many excellent reporters out there, however I take all news reports with a grain of salt unless I know who wrote the article and where he/she got the information. I feel the news reports in question made a great number of assumptions, a common one being that if an adopted horse can't be found it must have gone to the laughterhouse. In my personal experience only a few adopted horses remain long term (several years) under the ownership of their original adopters. This in of itself is not a bad thing.
I currently own three BLM animals. They are well cared for, yet I am not the original adopter. I legally took possession of these animals from people who were unable to continue caring for them. The original owners, one whom was elderly, have since died. The BLM probably could not track these animals at this point, but they are certainly being maintained both by the requirements as well as the spirit of the Wild Horses and Burros Act.
Over half of the BLM animals with which I am personally familiar belong to someone other than their original adopters. Some just didn't work out for the kind of use that their original owners had envisioned when adopting. Some families had hardships. A few adopters had marital problems and had to sell all their horses. At least in my region, the titled BLM animals appear to be changing hands less frequently than domestically raised horses and far fewer of them are ending up at the "killer auctions." To me the assertion that most of the "unaccounted for" horses have gone to the killers is preposterous.
Another element which has not been discussed is that some horses simply have chronic health or mental problems. The owner of a domestic horse in chronic pain, with a brain tumor, or possessing some other chronic or terminal affliction would be expected to humanely euthanize their animal. While the slaughterhouse is not my method of choice, it is an option that some people utilize. It does not seem rational to me that treating a properly adopted and titled BLM animal should be substantially different than one would treat a domestic equine.
Court affidavits suggest that a number of years ago there were individuals who adopted BLM horses in lot quantities and then apparently turned them over to the killers. In many cases, these horses had problems and were considered "unadoptable". This practice has since been stopped and the BLM has been working on alternative solutions for these animals.
Another issue often overlooked is that a significant component of the BLM's follow-up support and monitoring of adopted animals is the citizen volunteer, people such as you who are reading this document. Most of the BLM personnel with whom I have come in contact are well meaning and spread very thin. Most of the time it's the volunteer corps which has the time to devote to one-on-one encounters and support of adopted animals. Volunteers are utilized in a wide range of roles, from clerical support to field inspections and assisting adopters, and even helping in natural habitat maintenance and management. So, if you really want to see these problems solved and you have some time, contact the volunteer coordinator at your BLM District Office.
The recent court action brought by The Fund for Animals & Animal Protection Institute raised a couple of valid points and two which I seriously question. The first recommendation involved a requirement that all slaughterhouses obtain clear title to every animal which displayed a BLM freezemark. The titles would then be turned over to BLM. The logic here is that the BLM could determine if the slaughter of the animal was legitimate (e.g., unrecoverable severe and chronic lameness), and could likewise determine if any patterns of abuse were developing. Through keeping of such records, the BLM would have the authority to disallow adoptions to individuals in cases where their previously adopted animals found their way to slaughter without reasonable cause.
Some of the other points raised are listed below.
One of the proposals which I personally really liked involved making the adopters more responsible for their animals. The concept here is to include some language in the adoption and care agreements to the effect that the adopter certifies under penalty of perjury that he/she is not adopting the animal(s) for commercial purposes or for the intent to resell. This approach provides a basis for penalty in the event a person adopts fraudulently or keeps one or more horses for the minimum period of time just to sell them at the killer auction or directly to a slaughterhouse. My only personal objection to the specific wording of this proposal involves some unintentional adverse impacts on legitimate persons in "borderline" situations. The idea, after all, is to find good homes for the animals and in my opinion, with the large number of horses needing placement, no adopters who can provide such care should be discouraged.
More specifically, there are persons who like starting and training horses. There are other persons who would like a BLM horse, but don't have the time, expertise or money to train their own. Is the person who adopts, trains and then sells the horses to good homes using the horses for commercial purposes if he/she sells the animals after the one year period, using the money to recover part or all of the expenses incurred in purchasing, transporting, housing, feeding and caring for the horses?
Similarly, what about the adopter who uses his/her horse to give an occasional riding lesson or sponsors his/her horse to another person? What about the person who uses "mustangs" in a string for out-back riding trips? What about the rancher who adopts some burros to run with his sheep to discourage coyotes? In these cases the horses aren't actually a commodity, however on occasion they do generate some income, if only to offset part of their board and keep. The issue of commercial use is important, but I feel the definitions need to be thought through and clarified. Perhaps "incidental commercial use" could be permitted so long as the animals were not acquired for commercial purposes and commercial activities comprised only a minor portion of the animal's lifestyle.
BLM regulations allow for mass adoptions and fee waivers in certain circumstances. Some horses have special problems which would make them unusable or involve excess veterinary expenses. In many cases the BLM can waive fees or place a number of horses with a "power-of-attorney adopter", typically someone representing a wild horse rescue foundation which has suitable acreage and/or facilities to care for a number of animals. Unfortunately there have been unscrupulous adopters in years past who have been accused of receiving numbers of BLM horses, then turning them over for slaughter. In my opinion, eliminating all mass adoptions throws out the baby with the bath water. The elements of greater accountability of slaughterhouse records and more clearly defined adopter responsibilities should reasonably address any concerns regarding mass adoptions.
Section edited on 7-14-97
Perhaps the most ill conceived recommendation brought up in the suit involves "holding BLM employees to a higher standard." While this may sound appropriate on the surface, such a recommendation, if imposed, would make it unfeasible for any BLM employee to adopt a wild horse or burro. The plaintiffs propose that any BLM employee who adopts must keep the animal for life. This is totally unreasonable as the horse may not work out or the employee may encounter some hardship and may not be able to keep the horse. Such an approach would discourage BLM employees from acquiring horses themselves.
My recollections of BLM adoption activities include the strong imagery of BLM wranglers working off of their own adopted horses amidst the hubbub of the adoption. Having these horses, which they gentled and trained themselves, not only displays the abilities of the animals, but lends significant credibility to the BLM personnel themselves. Having brought these animals along in a "home" environment, they understand, can relate to and have personal knowledge and experience regarding the types of concerns and problems new adopters will encounter.
In most cases these employees have paid for these animals, provided their housing and feed, provided their training, and now utilize the animals for the benefit of the agency at virtually no cost to the taxpayers except for a little hay for their animals to eat while being worked. They shouldn't be regulated out of the adoption system.
If something must be done, a more reasonable approach might be to require all owners of BLM animals to obtain titles which are to be tendered with the horses when sold. For a modest fee to cover processing (perhaps $20.00) the new owner will have the horse put in his/her name. Such a system is not cost-prohibitive and would serve to protect the horses, the BLM and all legitimate owners.
The plaintiffs in the BLM suit have made some valid points, but they seem to extrapolate a great deal of meaning out of a few isolated examples. Quoting from the complaint:
First of all, I don't agree at all that this paragraph describes a "typical adoption." It does describe a horse which for some reason was not working out and after feeding and caring for the animal for a year, a fearful owner wanted to sell it. Most BLM horses don't have such behavioral problems and when someone adopts one which does, he/she shouldn't be stuck with it for life. Furthermore, there was no evidence submitted that the horse went for slaughter. I get real tired of people advancing the notion that virtually every horse which hasn't been kept by an original adopter must have been killed. To me such assertions are no more than hype since the evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
Undoubtedly some adopted horses are being slipped off to the slaughterhouses. In every aspect of our society, someone is doing something illegal somewhere. I don't believe the problem is as rampant and widespread as some people make it out to be.
Do corrections need to be made? Of course they do. The BLM is one of the first to admit to that, and they have tried to advance some regulation changes, including proposing the tightening up of titling requirements. Are they the inept, corrupt organization that some folks make them out to be? I don't think so. They are a huge governmental agency responsible for many missions and a few mistakes are bound to occur.
In parting, I leave you to ponder one question. Will the problem be best solved by dragging the government into court, or by more direct involvement by us, those citizens who want to see the fulfillment of the objectives of Congress when they passed the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act?
Questions? Comments? email me!
This is not a BLM operated or BLM sponsored site. It is run by private wild horse and burro enthusiasts.
Go To KBR Horse Net