They have been called symbols. They have been called icons. If they die, some, say, it wipes out a bit of U.S. history. But the free-living horses struggling to survive in undeveloped pockets across the United States are not icons, any more than you or I are. They are flesh and blood, with parents, with children, with mates. And their lives, freedom, and futures are constantly at risk.

As the cattle industry grows and the government grants public land to ranching uses, free-living horses are increasingly thirsty and hungry. But rather than question the dangers posed to wilderness and free-living animals by the business of ranching, the focus has been on how to move animals without raising a public ruckus. And thus, over the years, countless horses have been snatched from their natural habitat, legally adopted into private ownership, and, not infrequently, sent to slaughter.

And the risk to their lives has just increased. A provision supported last December by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT), known as the Burns Amendment to the 2005 Appropriations Bill, effectively reversed a 34-year prohibition on slaughter, by permitting older horses to be killed instead of waiting indefinitely to be adopted into ownership.

As a result, 41 wild horses ended up killed in Illinois earlier this year. Public outcry following the deaths prompted a moratorium on roundups. But the break for wild horses didn’t last long.

On June 1, removals continued with a new bill of sale in place pledging harsher penalties for any buyer sending animals to be killed. Despite such measures, by the end of September, more than 12,000 horses will have been be confiscated from New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon, this year alone.

Removals began in 1973, two years after the Wild and Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted to protect horses from capture and slaughter. About 200,000 horses have been rounded up for adoption since then. Currently, according to the Bureau of Land Management, 24,000 horses wait in government-run holding pens.

Is adoption the answer?

Some defend roundups that result in adoption into private ownership as a saving grace for horses struggling to survive. But that rationale misses an inherent injustice. Free-living horses should be left free. Not only should they be safe from slaughter; they should be safe from being made into a privatized commodity.

Since the adoption schemes began, many horses have been trained by prison inmates in an initiative designed to tame horse and prisoner in the same rite. The Wyoming Department of Corrections website describes the Wyoming Honor Farm as showing how “through respect and patience even a wild animal will respond positively.” Yet true respect would respect the horses’ inherent interest in living on their own terms.

Moreover, once a horse is collected, the person acquiring that horse might change purposes. In April, Dustin Herbert of Oklahoma, a former rodeo clown, purchased six horses which he said would be used for a church youth program. Those horses were later sent to the Cavel International slaughterhouse in DeKalb, Illinois. A week later, as reported in the 5 May 2005 printing of National Geographic, 35 more horses ended their lives hanging upside down at the same plant after being purchased through the adoption program.

Indeed, sometimes slaughter is the claimed good purpose.

Floyd Schwieger, a retired minister and board member of the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell, Wyoming says he supports the government’s efforts to reduce the horse population as long as it’s done without cruelty and uses old, slaughtered horses to feed the starving humans abroad.

“I would like to see the federal government simply have their own slaughterhouse”, he said in an interview with National Geographic earlier this month. (Maryann Mott, Wild Horses Sold by U.S. Agency Sent to Slaughter, National Geographic News, 5 May 2005).

The meat could “be given to the poor and needy people around the world, compliments of the United States government, as a means to help alleviate the suffering in the world.”

Sold for as much as 20 dollars per pound, most meat actually ends up in the mouths of the well-to-do, with Belgium or Italy being typical customers.

A matter of public concern

The Bureau of Land Management’s adoption scheme appears to save horses from ending up on dinner plates, yet it has undergone serious investigation just four times: in 1987 and 2000, after animal advocates claimed mismanagement; in 1997, when Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza uncovered wild horses being shipped to slaughter, and recently, after the 41 horses – including those bought by the former rodeo clown – were killed in Illinois.

Sensing public concern, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) introduced S. 576 to prohibit horses slaughter for human consumption. In the House, Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) introduced a similar bill, prohibiting slaughter altogether. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Ed Whitfield (R-KY) also submitted two pieces of legislation: a bill to restore the 1971 Act that outlawed the slaughter of such horses for commercial purposes and an amendment to next year’s budget bill that could stop tax money from going toward horse sales.

In addition, an amendment was introduced to the 2005 Farm Bill, by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Ensign (R-NV), allocating $5 million for a privately run horse center to centralize and hasten the adoption program in Nevada.

Real power? The power of the consumer

While the proposed legislation shows a good intention to save horses, it won’t halt roundups. Legislators take their direction from their constituents, including influential, wealthy ranchers.

As consumers, we the public must become conscious of our own shopping habits. When speaking out for horses, and pressing for answers, we must acknowledge that the demand for ranchers’ meat products at home is just as significant as the demand for horsemeat in Italy and elsewhere.

“It’s time we acknowledge the connection between horsemeat and hamburgers,” said Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals president. “For those who respect free-living animals, it’s simply not enough to express outrage at their deaths; we must also stop supporting the profits of ranches.”