For a professor of history, Andrew Gulliford sure seems to have forgotten plenty of it. Or perhaps he only remembers the history that fits the narrative of his curiously callous anti-mustang hit piece (“Scourge of the West: ‘Wild’ vs. feral horses on public lands,” Herald, Oct. 9), a screed apparently aimed at making the American people forget how much we love and appreciate these iconic symbols of the American West.
What Gulliford fails to acknowledge is this: It’s because of our history that mustangs are so special to the American people, who have long revered horses because of the central role they played in our nation’s story. That’s why so many wrote to their members of Congress 50 years ago to pass a federal law to protect them, and why today so many fight to stop their mistreatment at the hands the federal government.
Tales of famous wild horses feature prominently in our national lore; Americans grow up with novels like “The Black Stallion,” “Misty of Chincoteague,” “Fury and the Mustangs” and “The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.” We thrill to films and television programs with equine protagonists. We even cheer for sports teams that honor that unbreakable wild equine spirit, especially Colorado’s own Denver Broncos.
Without the horse, our nation would look very different today. Even more than the dog, the horse served as our indispensable partner in work, recreation and sport. That bond is why Americans are so averse to slaughtering horses for human consumption. Horses are our family and our friends, and in this country, we don’t eat our family and friends.
So yes, when most Americans marvel at a family band of wild mustangs thundering across the high desert landscape, or watch two stallions dueling for supremacy, or root for a newborn foal struggling to rise for the first time on long, spindly legs, our response is deeply emotional. Those images evoke core American values, especially our love of family and freedom.
Do we romanticize the wild mustangs? We do, yes, because horses earned our admiration and our affection through their courage, sacrifice and service. And while we no longer depend on horses, we romanticize them like we romanticize the Grand Canyon, ancient redwood forests and important battlefields. Our wild herds have an historical, cultural and aesthetic value that can’t be quantified or monetized.
The Bureau of Land Management has embarked this year on a campaign to clear tens of thousands of wild mustangs from our public lands for the sake of millions of cattle and sheep. The BLM and its allies in the beef industries know the images of helicopters stampeding mustangs into traps, or of defeated mustangs languishing in the agency’s barren feedlots and corrals, enrage the American public. So in its messaging, the agency keeps repeating the “wild horse overpopulation” lie, saying with a straight face that too many mustangs are destroying the rangelands, and they risk starvation if they aren’t chased down, trapped and removed.
With this false trope, the BLM seeks to divert the American public’s attention away from the damage caused to our public lands by millions of cattle and sheep, and instead make 80,000 wild equines living on millions of acres across 10 states the convenient scapegoats. Yet groups like Western Watersheds Projects and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility have recently published the BLM’s own data that clearly show that vast numbers of cattle and sheep, not wild horses, are overgrazing our rangelands.
Because of our history and who we are as a people, Americans will always prefer seeing that band of mustangs galloping across our high deserts and plains to throngs of commercial livestock. So while Gulliford, the livestock industry and even the BLM, may try to use pejoratives like “feral” to make people care less about the fate of these federally protected animals, it’s never going to work. The wild mustangs belong to the American people, we love them unabashedly and we want them protected, not persecuted.
Scott Beckstead is an adjunct professor of law at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where he teaches classes in animal law, wildlife law and the Endangered Species Act. He also works as director of campaigns for two affiliated animal protection organizations, Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy.