I-Team: Havasu Canyon pack horses get much needed help

LAS VEGAS - A rescue mission to help the beleaguered horses and mules of Havasu Canyon was a success, according to animal welfare groups.

The trip was organized by the Humane Society of the U.S. and other animal organizations in response to persistent reports of pack animals being brutalized and starved. 

The I-Team launched its own investigation earlier this year. 

PHOTOS: Pack horses at Havasu Canyon
(Warning: Some images may be disturbing.)

The abuse of horses and mules at Havasu Canyon has been reported for 50 years or longer. It is not every animal owner, but it's not isolated either. The Humane Society spent a year in delicate negotiations with the Havasupai tribe to send in assistance for the animals, but without being too judgmental. 

At the bottom of Havasu Canyon, streams run through shaded campgrounds, and as many as 300 visitors per day are drawn to the staggering beauty of waterfalls and turquoise pools, but for hundreds of horses and mules, the canyon is hell. 

For the past year, animal advocates have highlighted troubling images -- photos and videos of severely undernourished pack animals. Horses and mules with open sores, broken bones, being beaten, or discarded and left for dead. Overloaded and overwhelmed.

"They just work them until they drop dead, then they go pick up some more horses from somewhere else," said Susan Ash, founder of SAVE.

"We were certainly aware of the allegations of abuse and neglect, and it has gone on far too long, but we wanted to provide care for the horses," said Kellye Pinkleton, Arizona Director for the Humane Society of the United States.

That in a nutshell is the fine line the animal welfare groups had to walk if they wanted to bring relief to the horses and mules of Havasu Canyon. The Humane Society and its partners negotiated for a year with the Havasupai tribal council to find a way to help but without scolding the entire tribe.

A dozen volunteers gathered at the edge of the canyon, then made the 8-mile trek to the bottom. Feed and other supplies had to be brought in by chopper. There is no veterinarian in the canyon so many of the horses and mules had received no vet care or vaccinations for a long time, if ever. 

The volunteers included farriers who worked on long-neglected hooves, equine dentists who got to treat horses mouths, and educators who instructed some tribal members about deworming and other health maintenance for animals.

"We didn't know, would the community bring their horses to us? That was a real concern,"  Pinkleton said.

The volunteers worried that tribe members might be too suspicious of outsiders to cooperate, but with encouragement from the tribal council, residents brought in their animals. The team helped more than 70 pack animals during its visit. It also rescued a blind horse and a pack of puppies moved from a wheelbarrow to a helicopter, taken to a shelter for adoption. 

Pinkleton says the team met many tribal members who do care about their animals' well being and welcomed the help. Most encouraging was that tribal leaders seemed open to an ongoing assistance program.

"We came out exceeding expectations,"  Pinkleton said. "We saw more horses than we thought we would, met with community members, and this opens the door to many more things that were not possible a couple of months ago."

Humane Society blog on the visit

HSUS left feed and supplies behind and hopes to make another trip into the canyon later this year. They do not agree with calls for a  tourism boycott of the canyon because they worry what would happen to the animals if the tribes primary source of income was cut off. The trip didn't solve the problem, but it is progress. 

The Havasupai Tribal Council issued the following statement about the HSUS visit:

“The Havasupai Tribal Council approved the visit from the Humane Society of the United States a few months ago.  A team of 12 individuals, including an equine vet, an equine dentist and a farrier,  were in Supai May 18-21. They provided care to many of the horses and offered general education and information to the owners regarding horse care. We are pleased with their effort and look forward to the next opportunity, later in the year, for the team to return.”

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