Horse killings are creating a surprising split

Rights activists, tribal groups face off in court

Wranglers hired by the Navajo Department of Agriculture captured wild horses, which are the focus in a dispute on whether US officials should sanction slaughtering to thin herds.
Diego James Robles/The New York Times
Wranglers hired by the Navajo Department of Agriculture captured wild horses, which are the focus in a dispute on whether US officials should sanction slaughtering to thin herds.

NEW YORK — It seemed at first like a logical alliance for boldface names in the interconnected worlds of Hollywood and politics. Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and the actor Robert Redford, a staunch conservationist, joined animal rights groups in a federal lawsuit to block the revival of horse slaughter in the United States, proclaiming that they were “standing with Native American leaders,” to whom horse slaughter “constitutes a violation of tribal cultural values.”

The two men started a foundation to protect New Mexico’s wildlife, but they soon found themselves on a collision course with the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized tribe. The tribe’s president released a letter to Congress Aug. 2 asserting his support for horse slaughtering.

Free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range, said Ben Shelly, the Navajo president. There is a gap between reality and romance when, he said, “outsiders” such as Redford — who counts gunslinger, sheriff’s deputy, and horse whisperer among his film roles — interpret the struggles of American Indians.


“Maybe Robert Redford can come and see what he can do to help us out,” Shelly said in an interview. “I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

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The horses, tens of thousands of them, are at the center of a passionate, politicized dispute in court, in Congress, and even within tribes across the West on whether US authorities should sanction their slaughtering to thin herds. The practice has never been banned, but it stopped when money for inspections was cut in the budget.

In Navajo territory, parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle.

According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Shelly said. They have no owners, and many of them are thought to be native to the West. The tribes contend that they must find an efficient way of culling the population. Although it is common to shoot old and frail horses — and more merciful than a ride to the slaughterhouse — there are too many of them, and there is some money in rounding them up and selling them at auction.

There is also the question of sovereignty, one of the points raised in a resolution endorsing horse slaughter that was issued by the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. Citing hillsides and valleys denuded by overgrazing by feral and wild horses, which on reservations across the West “are nearly everywhere you look,” the resolution accuses the federal government of failing to consult the tribes before proposing language in the Agriculture Department’s appropriations bill to again withhold money for slaughterhouse inspections.


Richardson acknowledged the conflict, which has sown divisions even among members of the same tribe. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include tribesmen such as Paul Crane Tohlakai, a Navajo, and David Bald Eagle, the chief of the Minikoju Band of the Cheyenne River Tribe of Lakota Indians.

“Institutionally,” Richardson said, responding to the claims by the Navajos’ president, “there have to be some issues that have to be dealt with, and that’s why the ultimate solution is to find a natural habitat, or a series of natural habitats, and adoption for the horses.”

The United States has never had a market for horse meat, a dietary staple in Belgium, China, and Kazakhstan. It does have a history of horse slaughtering, though; at one point there were more than 10 such slaughterhouses in the nation. The last three, one in Illinois and two in Texas, closed in 2007, after Congress banned the use of US money for salaries for personnel whose job was to inspect horses and slaughterhouses.

In their last year, the three plants slaughtered 30,000 horses for human consumption and shipped 78,000 for slaughter in Canada and Mexico, according to statistics by US and Canadian authorities. Congress’ subsequent unwillingness to finance inspections made slaughtered horse meat ineligible for the seal of inspection needed to be commercially sold, effectively ending the practice.