Park rangers say using helicopters to round up wild horses in California is humane and necessary. But animal rights activists tell Channel 4 News’s Sarah Smith the practice is barbaric.
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On the Twin Peaks in range in California, just north of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the wranglers really do wear Wrangler jeans. They have Stetson hats, checked shirts and lassos as well. These guys are the real deal.
The most high-tech piece of equipment I saw them using was a shredded plastic bag attached to the end of a stick. A bit of kit that doesn’t even have a proper name, which they use to frighten wild horses. Mustangs don’t like the rustling noise.
The whole scene looks as though little has changed here since the first settlers brought first horses onto this range in 1870.
Until a very loud, very shiny, very modern helicopter crashes into view, chasing hundreds of wild mustang horses across the range. A bang up-to-date version of a buckaroo.
The helicopters are here to round up two and half thousand wild horses over the next six weeks. The largest wild horse round up in America. A highly controversial exercise that some argue is essential to the welfare of the horse, and others think is both cruel and unnecessary.
Animal rights activists come out to watch the round-up every day, distressed that the horses are being chased by these noisy machines. Dozens have died in previous round-ups – over 100 were killed in Nevada last winter.
But park rangers insist it’s perfectly humane, saying a skilled helicopter pilot can move the animals slowly and accurately toward the pens prepared for their capture.
Wild horses have almost no natural predators, so land managers say the horse population has grown far too large for the range to sustain them. Once every one of the wild horses has been caught, just 458 will be selected to be released back into the wild.
But before they go, most of the mares will have to be sterilised. These round-ups are now so controversial that the rangers are very much hoping that from now on contraception will do the job for them instead of helicopters.
Wild horses are such an iconic symbol of the wild west they can tug on American heartstrings like no other animal can. So nationwide protests against the round-ups gain plenty of public support. There are even now moves in congress to have the whole programme stopped.
Bill Phillips is 83 years old. You can tell by the date of birth he has engraved on his silver belt buckle. As he took me off into the range to find mustangs grazing wild, he explained that it is essential to reduce their numbers in order for the herd to survive.
There is such meagre vegetation and so little water the land can’t support the numbers of wild horses currently living on it. Unless they are rounded up and captured, a slow death from starvation or dehydration awaits many of these beasts.
For 2,000 formerly wild horses here in northern California, a different fate awaits. Some will be adopted for just $125 and either put to work or kept as pets.
But adoption rates are falling just as round-up numbers are increasing. So more than few of these animals will end up in early retirement in the midwest, grazing fertile pasture at taxpayers’ expense for the rest of their days.
Protesters are convinced that some end up slaughtered in Canada or Mexico. But the Bureau of Land Management insists that not one healthy animal is ever killed.
Some deeply committed rangers told me they care about these horses every bit as much as the activists do. And they truly believe they are doing what’s best for the horse population.
But they have clearly not convinced the activists who say watching the round-up on the range is the most distressing sight they have ever seen
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