Summer Brennan (continued journal 7/2020)
Every volunteer journals their journey. The dates on each journal entry allow each of us to share in the evolution of all of the unique voices of our WHE volunteers.
Full journal entry from volunteer spotlight 7/30/2020.
As a lifelong horse rescuer and advocate, it was only natural for me to have a fascination and respect for wild horses. Growing up on the east coast, wild horses were not as common even though I grew up on a horse rescue farm. While doing my senior thesis in college about horse slaughter, I found myself doing a lot of additional research about the plight of wild horses in this country. Like rescued horses, people believe a lot of untrue stories about wild horses and I wanted to set the record straight.
I have gentled and trained many wild horses since then, and worked to make the public aware of how incredible these animals are as individuals. In 2012, I even competed in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover competition. I kept a daily photographic diary of my experience with the horse (who I named Amado) from the day he arrived, totally wild, right up to the day of the competition 90 days later. I also won a $25,000 contest about my Amado story, and we were featured on the Dodo (our video has 60 Million views).
In order to be the best possible advocate for wild horses, I needed to see and learn about every aspect of this complicated issue for myself. I’ve gone to see mustangs living in the wild and I’ve toured the holding facilities where they languish for the rest of their lives (unless they get adopted or killed) with Wild Hose Education founder Laura Leigh in 2013.
Over the 4th of July, I began my official journey as a Wild Horse Education volunteer, I documented my first helicopter roundup.
I found it ironic that on the day we celebrate freedom, I was watching our symbols of freedom lose theirs. While some people may just see animals, I saw families running for their lives and being torn apart to satisfy greed and corruption. I saw a mother fearlessly battle a helicopter, and outsmart the pilot again and again as she tried to find her baby who was separated from the group in the chaos. I cheered as one herd leader, galloping full speed, noticed the trap at the last second and turned sharply, blasting through the jute and leading his family to safety. I watched stallions, separated from the families they are desperate to protect, get packed into small enclosures with other rival stallions and battle like gladiators, with no space to get away from each other.
As a lifelong horse person, I saw so many things that would make anyone with knowledge about horses cringe. Chasing horses at full speed with a helicopter into a tiny enclosure is a recipe for disaster. I saw many horses collide with the panels when they hit the trap, but fortunately (as far as I could tell from so far away) none of them were severely injured. I was a nervous wreck every time a herd with tiny foals was chased in. Foals are fragile and small, and should not be running great distances on their underdeveloped hooves and bodies. Furthermore, it would be too easy for them to be trampled or injured or orphaned during the sorting process. The sorting process itself was dangerous and barbaric, which is probably why the contractors and BLM employees were so careful to keep us observers at such a great distance (I feel very strongly that this should change. If roundups are so “humane”, then why keep observers so far away?). During the sorting process, stallions and mares (families) are separated from each other. Some try desperately to leap the panels and become entangled or fall. Stallions are put in small enclosures with other stallions (rival males), and they are basically forced to battle each other when trapped together in such a confined space. I felt horrible for the smaller, weaker stallions who were repeatedly bitten and kicked, unable to flee from their attackers. One of the contractors laughed as a smaller stallion took a particularly savage kick to a leg and said, “a kick like that would break my saddle horse’s leg!”
Overall, the whole experience confirmed beliefs I already had, as well opened my eyes to a lot of things that were worse than I knew (and something I feel taxpayers and lawmakers should be aware of). I spent a lot of time talking to the contractors (the helicopter pilot and the crew who captures, sorts and transports the horses) and the BLM employees there. Before observing a roundup in person, I had always believed that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controlled the wild horse roundups (and on paper they do), but it was very clear that the contractors ran the show and profited heavily from the whole event.
Despite being employed by the BLM, the contractors decided when they flew (and for how long), what people were allowed to view things up close (they allowed a 16 year old girl who was not a family member at the trap to watch and help with the roundup, while we were kept far away), and they controlled every aspect of the holding pen setup, how much the horses were fed and when, how big the enclosures were, etc. They behaved like the BLM employees worked for them, which seemed odd considering it is supposed to be the other way around. The BLM is responsible for the welfare of the horses captured, after all.
I always knew that the contractors were paid a dollar amount for every horse they captured. In the case of this roundup, the contractors were paid $1,000 for every horse (your tax dollars), plus a daily rate for every day their helicopter was in the air, plus they got paid for the use of their round pen panels and equipment. The contractors even got paid to feed the horses (though it never appeared like they fed them nearly enough). The contractors decided exactly how long their day was. Therefore, if they did not capture any horses, they still got paid. If they only took the helicopter up for 2 hours, they still got paid their daily rate. The day before I arrived at the roundup, conditions were windy and not ideal to fly the helicopter (I know this from having several pilot friends). The contractors decided to have the roundup anyway that day, and though they caught no horses (obviously), they still got their per diem.
My first day at the roundup, conditions were perfect. It was not hot or windy, and the helicopter was successfully bringing in band after band of horses. Because this was a smaller roundup (goal of only capturing 125 horses), it was possible to meet their quota of horses in a short period of time if things continued to go this well. However, that morning, the contractors decided to call it a day before it was even 10:00 (likely to stretch out the roundup as long as possible to continue profiting from this more than they needed to). The BLM employees seemed annoyed by calling it a day so early, but did not challenge the contractors. The second day that I observed was on the 4th of July. They caught most of the horses that day, and only needed around 20 more horses to meet their quota on the third day.
On the third day I observed, they met their quota of 125 horses and I was hoping that meant they would pack up and leave the animals in this area alone. However, they decided to go out ANOTHER day after that to capture more horses to “treat with fertility control and eventually release.” I was extremely frustrated by that. Instead of wasting staggering amounts of money capturing those horses and stressing them unnecessarily, transporting them, and holding them for months, they could have allowed volunteers to dart mares in that area with PZP (a highly effective fertility control vaccine) and manage them more humanely. The number of horses in that area is not exceptionally high, and there was more than enough grass and water available. Capturing more horses the following day was a waste of resources, and a waste of an opportunity for volunteers to dart horses in the wild.
The biggest thing that stuck with me after this whole experience was the lengthy conversation I had with the owner of the contracting company and his family. They have built a multi-million dollar empire capturing wild horses for the government. They have been doing this for decades and had no problem sharing their feelings on the subject. They believe that the government should increase the number of horses captured every year (duh, that’s more money in their pockets) and that horses in holding facilities should be slaughtered to save taxpayers money! So the same people who dragged out the duration of a roundup for the maximum period of time to profit as much as possible from taxpayer dollars, feel like the wild horses in holding should be slaughtered to save taxpayers money. It is a chilling thought to know that the people our government hires to humanely manage wild horse populations believe they should be captured at staggering rates and slaughtered.
It is frustrating that the BLM does not allow organizations that have offered to help manage wild horses for FREE to have a seat at the table and come up with longterm, sustainable and humane wild horse management programs. Clearly, managing wild horses the way they have been for so many decades does not work.
And finally, this brings me to the last part of my most recent wild horse educational journey. After watching the roundup and seeing the corruption and abuse of wild horses firsthand, I traveled with two other volunteers to Montana to take a PZP darting certification course as part of my participation as a Wild Horse Education volunteer.
PZP is an immuno-contraceptive vaccine that can be administered to horses using a dart gun. PZP is non-hormonal, non -steroidal and does not alter the behavior of horses in any way. Basically, wild horses (and many other species of animals) can still live their natural lives, but they won’t become pregnant for a year. PZP has effectively been used to control horse populations and is a valuable management tool that the BLM is not utilizing. PZP is not a method, it is a substance. PZP is most often used with a helicopter roundup. I like the darting method.
Currently, our government is spending millions of dollars on wild horse management programs that do not work, because there are no management plans. There is a lot of work to do and there is so much more to learn.
I am grateful for this opportunity given to me by Wild Horse Education.