Friday, January 20, 2012

Mustangs: Symbols of Freedom or Expensive Ferals?

Another round of BLM mustang adoptions started today! You can see a full gallery of available critters here.  As I've mentioned before, they have regular round-ups of mustangs in order to keep the population down. Of course, you can also adopt year-round at the BLM's permanent holding facilities.
The available animals are mostly young (ages 1-6) un-handled horses, but there are also mules, burros and green-broke mustangs. Males have all been gelded. The bidding starts at a meager $125 and includes free shipping to one of their adoption centers (locations include OR, CA, WY, NE, OK, MS, TX, KY, AR). You can buy up to four per year.

ZOMG so cute and fluffy!

Some people are less afraid of getting a wild horse than of the adoption process itself-- but it's really not that complicated:
  • fill out an online form stating you've got good enough facilities (no pics required)
  • send in a $125 deposit (credit cards accepted) that will be refunded if you don't buy
  • get a phone call from a BLM worker to review the paperwork
  • sign a contract stating the following:
"Yes, I will take adequate care of it, I will not turn around and sell it right away, and I understand the horse will still belong to the government for one year, just in case I am a total jerk and they have to seize it for reasons of incredibly obvious neglect."

That's it!

Oh, and you have to bring a halfway decent trailer to pick up the horse. They're not going to try to help you load a wild mustang in a dinky two-horse trailer from the 1970s. Or a mini-van.

Theoretically, there are government guys who go out and randomly inspect a few horses and farms per year to make sure everything is okay-- but I have never heard of this actually happening. There's just no way to enforce any of the regulations involving the adoption and care of mustangs. The laws are there, but not the money, manpower or interest. That's reassuring to people who dislike the big scary government intruding in their lives, and it's disappointing to those who would like to ensure that mustangs don't end up in bad situations.

I'm conflicted when it comes to mustangs. They're an important part of American history, and a proud symbol of our independence. I like the ideal of wild horses roaming picturesque landscapes-- but I also know that actually living in the wilderness means a life that is usually awful, brutal and short. Yeah, wild horses are free-- they're free to starve, die of disease and untreated injuries, or be hunted by wolves and cougars (and sometimes pissed-off cattle ranchers). About 40,000 wild equines aren't really "wild and free" any more anyway-- they're held at long-term holding facilities. (These facilities are either akin to equine concentration camps or horse heaven, depending upon the facility and whom you ask.) The government, and thus we the tax payers, fund the management of these horses to the tune of about $40 million per year -- or about $500 per year, per horse. Why are we paying that much money for these guys to freeze their ears off out west?

See, the BLM has to round up about 12,000 equines per year in order to keep their populations from expanding too far-- and they're usually only able to adopt out 1/3 to 1/4 that number. So the rest have to go... somewhere. Although the BLM denies it, some wild mustangs have even ended up at slaughter plants in the past. The law states that after 10 years of not being adopted, or three public auctions, mustangs can be gotten rid of in any expedient way possible. Combine that with the rather rough round-ups via helicopter, and people are screaming bloody murder. In fact, the BLM has gotten so defensive about people continually confronting them for poor management, cruelty, etc, that they have created a web page specifically to deny these accusations. Again, I'm on the fence here.

Yeah, this video is a bit rough, and I don't like it. However, remember that these are wild horses. Not bunny rabbits, not tame kids' ponies, but wild-freakin'-fightin' mustangs. Hundreds or thousands of them, in one place. How would YOU handle rounding them up? Also remember that some of the scrapes and limps you see here aren't necessarily due to the roundup. Again, these are wild horses. They live in the wild. You know, where bad stuff happens sometimes? Circle of life? Predators, dying young, being beaten up by herd members, etc?

I don't think the BLM is the real badguy here. They're in an impossible situation. With a limited budget, and limited manpower, they're supposed to manage tens of thousands of uncooperative wild horses every year-- and try to please everybody in the process. On one hand, there are hard-hearted bastards who don't like their tax dollars squandered on a bunch of shaggy ponies, and on the other hand, PETA-type people who demand that every animal on God's green earth be tucked into bed each evening with a story and a goodnight kiss.

In addition, "The BLM" is a pretty broad way to name the dozens of different offices, ranches and sub-contractors that make up "the management." If you want to blame someone, blame a holding facilities manager, not "The BLM" as an entire entity. Also, some of the mistreatment of mustangs stems from the fact that when a mustang is on Federal lands, it's protected-- but if it wanders onto state lands, it's treated about the same as a stray dog.

Some people advocate fazing out all mustangs permanently, through gradual chemical sterilization and larger roundups. I'd be okay with that. Basically, we Americans are keeping mustangs around for the sake of symbolism-- and the horses are suffering for it. If I let MY horse loose to run around without consistent sources of food, water, shelter and vet or farrier care, I would be prosecuted for neglect! In the NORMAL horse world, we tend to look down on people who keep dozens of wild, unbroke horses in their backyards-- we call them irresponsible breeders. Why are the standards different with mustangs?! Finally, if mustangs weren't out on the range in the first place, they would have to be subjected to brutal roundups!

Mustangs, by the way, aren't really a breed. They're feral horses, in the same category as stray cats. They come in all shapes and sizes. Their conformation usually isn't very good. Don't get me wrong, they can be great horses. But they're not magical. There's no real difference between the average mustang and the average backyard-bred grade horse. There's no special reason to keep them around, other than nostalgia. Speaking of which, NO, they are not native to North America...

Millions of years ago, North America was home to a species of primitive horse: Pliohippus.
This shaggy, donkey-like critter was about 12 hands high, stocky and heavy-boned. It died out about six million years ago. We're still not sure whether Pliohippus contributed to the genetic makeup of modern horses, but the closest equivalents alive today are north Asian Prezwalski's horses:

Are you looking at these guys? They're built for survival. Their small, compact, fuzzy bodies are designed to hoard maximum calories, on minimum forage. Now check out the modern mustang, descended from Spanish horses brought to North America in the 1500s:

This lanky, 15Hh, long-backed, European-descended mutt has to try to live in the same conditions-- with a body much less well-equipped to do so. They were bred by humans-- and as a result, they're built to serve humans more than they are to survive. When you're bigger, you have to eat more calories to keep going, and you have to burn more calories to stay warm. These guys are no more "native" to North America, or suited to living there, than a dalmatian is native to, or suitable for living in, a North American wolf pack. Is it possible? Sure. Is it going to be pleasant? Nope. Wild horses quite frequently freeze to death, and die of thirst and starvation. It's not that that stuff doesn't happen to the shaggy ponies in their native habitats; it's just that it happens to mustangs more often, because they are the wrong kind of critter in the wrong place.

If we MUST have feral horses out west, I'd like to see is something closer to a Busch Gardens approach, but government-supported. Yeah, let's keep some mustangs around-- but let's keep a lot fewer of them, in much nicer habitats, in a more accessible place for the public, and do so in a way that makes money rather than spends it in gobs. Wouldn't you go to a Wild Wild West theme park where you could see a rodeo, take a tour bus through wild mustang habitats, and ride The Gold Rush Roller Coaster? Hell yes. There would be a mini-museum dedicated to Cloud and his band. We could hire some of those Native Americans that are sitting out west with no jobs and bleak prospects. There would be Adult Nights, with honkey-tonk music, mechanical bull rides and half price beer. I'm thinking Calgary Stampede meets Disney Land here! The mustangs would live better lives, and the taxpayers would benefit.

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