Unlucky horse brings up thorny issue

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

A half-starved injured feral horse lies on the ground too weak to stand as it slowly grazes on the hay Tuesday morning west of Window Rock. The horse was found by Gilbert Yazzie who says he gave it some hay hoping it would regain some strength. Its hind rear quarter was apparently chewed on by dogs.

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

DEFIANCE PLATEAU, Ariz., March 4, 2010

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Young horses avoid being caught as they cautiously eye their two-legged relatives Tuesday near a private residence west of Window Rock. Another feral horse was found by Gilbert Yazzie that was apparently attacked and then eaten alive by dogs. That horse was put to sleep by the Navajo Nation Veterinarian's office. The young horses were eventually caught.

Navajo Nation Police Officer Gilbert Yazzie was planning on enjoying his day off. Watch a little TV, maybe take a little snooze ... but first, perhaps a stroll across the yard to check on the sheep in the corral.

That's when he saw the blood in the snow.

"I thought, 'Oh no, another horse must have died and the dogs tore it apart,'" he recalled Tuesday.

The reality was even worse. Yazzie followed the bloody trail to a small, snow-filled depression just behind the compound's main house. A horse was lying in the depression, but it wasn't dead.

The young sorrel mare looked listlessly at Yazzie. Blood was draining from her anal area, which had been completely hollowed out.

"The horse had been eaten alive by dogs," Yazzie said.

Yazzie felt sick. He recognized the little mare as one of the herd of about 15 feral horses his wife's grandmother had been trying to keep alive with a daily bale of hay, about all she could afford after feeding her own stock.

Actually, the herd had started at 15. By now it was down to five or six.

Yazzie had found three dead of starvation, and he presumes the others met a similar fate. This was the first time he had actually seen the process.

Yazzie trudged to the family tractor and plowed a path to the little mare through the thigh-deep snow. He tried to roll her to her feet, but she seemed resigned to her fate. He put a bale of hay in front of her and she munched on it half-heartedly, barely lifting her head.

Yazzie sat down and thought about what to do. As a police officer, he usually referred calls about stray livestock to the Navajo Nation Resource Enforcement officers, so he called them.

"The dispatcher said, 'We can't do anything,'" he recalled. "I said, 'Well, who takes care of this?' "She said, 'Unbranded livestock is the property of the Navajo Nation.' "I said, 'Well, who is the Navajo Nation in this case?' She couldn't tell me."

Frustrated, Yazzie called a friend of his, a free-lance photographer. "I thought, 'If no one can help this horse, at least people should know this is happening,'" he said.

The photographer called a friend in the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, and about noon two tribeys and a horse trailer showed up with a team including some Navajo Nation rangers, Principal Extension Agent Herman Upshaw, and his wife, tribal veterinarian Kelly Upshaw.

Kelly Upshaw briefly examined the mare and filled a syringe with pink liquid. It wasn't a sedative.

"I could save her," she said. "It would cost the Navajo Nation about $1,500."

On the auction block, said her husband, the emaciated horse would fetch $20 from the horsemeat brokers who sell the horses to a packing plant in Mexico. If someone with a soft heart wanted to buy her and break her as a saddle horse? "Maybe $30. But that's not likely with a horse like this."

The little mare, already close to death, expired quickly. A few pathetic balls of manure fell out of her rear end where her anus had been. The officers rolled her onto Yazzie's forklift, and he drove her to the waiting trailer, her muzzle dragging on the ground, carving a line in the snow and mud. She would be taken to the New Mexico state landfill in Thoreau, the closest landfill that accepts large animal carcasses.

The whole affair, estimated Herman Upshaw, had cost the tribe about $300.

It would have been more had Yazzie not supplied the forklift.

The tribal employees packed up and tooled down the road to investigate two more complaints they had received about starving feral horses. "We get calls like this every day this time of year," Herman Upshaw said. The live ones would be rounded up and sold for horsemeat. The packing plants in Mexico and Canada - there are none in the U.S. anymore, thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists - don't take dead ones.

Herman Upshaw said he didn't blame Yazzie for feeling frustrated.

"The bad thing is, things like this happen and nobody knows who to call," he said. "These feral horses are the property of the Navajo Nation, but we don't really have a policy to deal with them."

A task force on the issue was established last year, according to Upshaw, but hasn't come up with any recommendations yet.

The Resources Committee is scheduled to meet to hear reports today, and Yazzie's mother-in-law, Christine Wallace, had requested some time on the agenda to talk about the stray horse issue. A legislative employee, however, said Wednesday she had never returned a written request, as is required, so the issue won't come up.

Wallace said she's tired of her beautiful homesite near the summit of the Defiance Plateau being a graveyard for feral horses every winter, and she's not sure what to do.

"We can make all the laws we want to, but if we're not enforcing them, it won't help," she said. "We need to change our thinking as Navajo people. People have no respect for their animals, their livestock, or Mother Earth. We need to wake up and realize this is our land here. We need to start taking care of it."

For the little mare and hundreds like her, that day will come too late.

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