All God’s creatures

Wild horse populations are stressing the American West, yet the simplest solution – sending them to slaughterhouses – is, for many, abhorrent.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wild horses gathered by the Bureau of Land Management stand in corrals at the National Wild Horse and Burro Center in Reno, Nevada.

Perhaps the best solution is just to slaughter the horses.

As a purely practical matter, that sentence represents perhaps the most logical answer to an ecological crisis across some of the remotest places of the American West. This week’s cover story by Amanda Paulson explores how growing wild horse populations are stressing landscapes and ranching operations, with no easy fixes in sight. Adoptions are insufficient, predation is largely nonexistent, and fertility control is unwieldy and expensive.

Yet the simplest solution – sending horses to slaughterhouses – is the only option that seems to be truly off the table. Why? Deer hunts are seen as a largely uncontroversial way to cull deer populations. Why should horses be any different?

The only real answer is that we, as a society, love them too much.

Wild horses are iconic images of a shared heritage – animals that are seen as fellow travelers and companions with humans, with a spirit sewn into our own. They are majestic, beautiful, intelligent, and endearingly social. The thought of destroying them is, for many, abhorrent.

And that is what struck me reading Amanda’s story. As a nation, America is going to extraordinary lengths – sometimes spending $50,000 per horse – to save wild horses from slaughter and give them humane lives. Often, our humanity is best gauged in our care for our own species. Sometimes, it can also be gauged in our care for others.

The model for saving wild horses is eminently impractical. It’s not a model for how to care for other wild animals. Frankly, it’s not even a model for caring for wild horses. Amanda’s story points out all the many flaws. And yet we go to these lengths because our love for the wild horse runs so deep. And that is the lesson that feels universal.

Imagine if we had such love for every creature. Put aside the policy for a moment. No one has an answer to what that would look like. But just imagine if we all cared that much. Wild horse programs are so complicated it can at times feel as if humans are playing God, sterilizing some, taming others. But there is another view: what love we have for them to go to such lengths.

And the fact is, that love is indeed expanding to other parts of the natural world. The Western world is not far removed from unthinkable things done in the name of entertainment – bear baiting, cat burning, and cockfighting. And it is just beginning to move away from inhumane practices in the name of agriculture or less-violent entertainment, like whale shows or circuses. In the Monitor, we’ve written about the leading edge of this trend, including efforts to win legal rights for some animals.

How this all plays out remains to be seen; any road forward requires real consideration of all interests. But this week’s cover story shows that the journey has at least begun, and a larger sense of love for all creation is a driving force.

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