New Victim, Same Tragedy: The Plight of the American Mustang

09/18/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

A few days ago I attended a fundraiser hosted by Rey and Kristine Castillo, owners of Village Modern Foods, in Santa Barbara. The event was in support of the nonprofit, Return to Freedom: American Wild Horse Sanctuary. Founded by wild Mustang advocate, Neda DeMayo, the ranch provides refuge to almost 400 wild horses and burros in Santa Barbara County. In an effort to bring awareness to the plight of the wild horses that roam on our public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a screening of the film, The American Mustang, brought a solemn audience to The New Vic Theater.

This film was a brutal reminder of how the bureaucracy of federal institutions is, at times, ignorant of the cause and effect of their decisions, and the distress they produce. Nothing prepared me for the cruelty of man toward beast that flooded the screen. As with everything, I have no doubt that some companies contracted to manage the round-ups are better than others, but the outcome is the same.

These wild horses are rounded up by helicopters, locked into pens, processed by age and gender, and branded. From here they are then shipped to various holding facilities. Short-term holding facilities are usually used to prepare and hold horses for the national adoption pipeline. But what I found most heartbreaking was witnessing each animal's distress when separated from his or her deeply bonded families and social groups.

One scene showed a horse being forced into a small steel container that was then tilted on its side; a panel opened to reveal the horse's hooves that were subsequently trimmed using a power tool. This isn't your friendly farrier -- it's done because the animals can no longer rely on nature to take care of their feet so the power tool trim is thought to work best.

Who pays for this? According to the BLM website, as of August 2014, there are 47,612 other wild horses and burros fed and cared for at short-term corrals and long-term pastures, and out of the $71.8 million that Congress appropriated to the Wild Horse and Burro Program in the in the 2013 Fiscal Year, holding costs accounted for $46.2 million. This is our tax dollars hard at work. I scoured the BLM website and couldn't help but notice that many of the pages have not been updated since 2011.

Neda DeMayo, founder of Return to Freedom, has been involved with the issue for over twenty years and when I spoke with her regarding the plight of the wild horses, she had this to say:

"With growing awareness from the public about wild horses in America and what they are facing, the spotlight on government agencies and their management of free roaming horses has resulted in some reforms -- but there is still a ways to go. What is so tragic is that there are solutions that can benefit all stakeholders, wildlife and wild horses. Much needed reforms for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro program continue to be postponed, even after a 2013 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences cited that technology is available NOW to manage wild horses on their ranges (contraception) and doing so would help save millions of dollars annually."

While I watched the film, I looked at the men who were handling the horses during the roundups and wondered how they could be a part of this cruelty. Or is cruelty defined as a personal observation? Has the independent farmer/cowboy become a wisp of a memory, a ghostly figure -- his spirit lost along with the buffalo, the American wild horse and the mom and pop farmer? Has he/she also become dependent on federal assistance through work that involves cruelty? Forced to take these jobs so they can put food on the table for their children, pay for rent, their cars, and groceries? Has the American cowboy become victim to the growing corporate agribusiness?

The fictional cowboy -- white, tall and macho was in reality, more often than not an ex-slave, forced west on cattle drives after the Civil War by the racism of the southern states and the shortage of jobs in the north. Driving cattle across harsh lands for the corporate farmer became their work.

Dissecting John Gast's memorable print, American Progress, I ponder the significance of Manifest Destiny. Perhaps this concept has been born again -- being taken too literally, or maybe we have never escaped its expectations and agenda. We can, so we will... we can have it, so we'll take it. This is the dichotomy of growth.

Moral conduct is often cast off with the excuse of being subjective, but in the case of unsustainable growth, morality seems tainted with greed. Surely in the case of the wild horses, the use of BLM land and the grazing of cattle, it might be advantageous to visit Garrett Hardin's; The Tragedy of the Commons. By monopolizing the land with cattle we will guarantee its demise.

Robert Redford, a supporter of Return to Freedom, eloquently stated:

"Competition for our natural resources continues to threaten our wilderness areas and wildlife species. America's wild horses are synonymous with what American's value most- freedom- what threatens them threatens us all. It is time to make available solutions a priority now while we work together for long term solutions to protect America's horses, wildlife and natural habitats."

Mr. Redford's words are another reminder of how deeply we are all affected by the plundering of our natural resources. Perhaps the distance between the desks in DC and the real life issues facing the destruction of our environment needs to be narrowed. I'm suggesting congressional field trips -- they may help to see what we are losing in the name of freedom and how it is being performed.

Our world today is tainted with war -- the military kind and the wars we wage within our own countries, to the darker conflicts within each of us. We speak with weapons, and often act defensively without prior thought to how our actions influence others, our planet, our creatures, and our future. What have we become? In a word, disconnected. Moral standards have shifted -- we see only what we want to see in the mirror. The truth can be unkind.

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