The 30,000 wild horses on Death Row are nearly out of appeals. They were condemned by the Government Accounting Office just in time for Veteran’s Day – a profoundly cynical act when you consider that countless wild horses perished after being taken from the range and serving in the Civil War, our frontier wars, and World War I. The announcement concluded a dark cycle that began on July 4th as flag-draped horses paraded down Main Street, rekindling our birthday dreams and echoing our heartbeats with the clip-clop of their hooves. At that moment, the Bureau of Land Management stated that it may have to kill the ‘excess’ mustangs in government housing as a cost-cutting move.
Since 1971, wild horses have been protected under the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon, who quoted Thoreau during a stirring speech about the role of wild horses in America’s culture and history. Since then, the livestock industry – which views wild horses as thieves that steal food from cows – has tried to take the law down through five administrations, and under the Bush administration is finally succeeding. The unraveling began three years ago, when a rollback made it legal for the BLM to sell horses in its custody that are over ten or who haven’t been adopted on the third try through its adopt-a-horse program to the lowest bidder. This meant a ticket to the slaughterhouse.
Several days after the unraveling began, a number of wild horses were immediately shipped to the killing floors. Now, the BLM says that while it doesn’t like having to make tough calls, it may just have to go through with this one. Such is the language of dedicated bureaucrats, and it’s not unlike the language that was used in the 19th Century, when the government realized that to vanquish Native Americans, it had to strip them of their horses.
As I document in my recently published book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, in 1858, Colonel George Wright ordered the massacre of 800 horses that belonged to the Palouse tribe, east of what later became Spokane, Washington. The site is now known as Horse Slaughter Camp, and it has a stone marker. On Thanksgiving night in 1868, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked Black Kettle and his tribe along the Washita River in Oklahoma, killing the chief and many of his people, and then their 800 ponies. The Cheyenne woman Moving Behind, who was fourteen at the time, would later remember that the wounded ponies passed near her hiding place, moaning loudly, just like human beings. ‘There would be other horse massacres,’ I wrote, ‘as if prefiguring the coming government war against the horse itself.’
And now, that war is upon us; what we did to the Indians we are about to do to ourselves – unless the many good citizens who are planning to confront the BLM’s wild horse and burro advisory board at its annual public meeting on Monday in Reno can head off the disaster at the pass. ‘We may be fighting wars around the world,’ I conclude in my book, ‘but in the West, to paraphrase the great environmental writer Bernard deVoto, we are at war with ourselves. To me, there is no greater snapshot of that war than we we have done and continue to do to the wild horse. As it goes, so goes a piece of America, and one of these days, bereft of heritage, we may all find ourselves moving on down the road.’
Deanne Stillman’s latest book, ‘Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,’ will be published June 9 by Houghton Mifflin.