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I-Team: Change comes slowly for abused pack animals at Havasu Canyon

LAS VEGAS - Havasu Canyon, which is on the edge of Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most beautiful places in the world, but it is also home to an ugly secret. For decades, pack animals owned by members of the Havasupai Tribe have been subjected to horrific abuse. 

The tribe is a sovereign nation, so the enforcement of animal welfare laws has been difficult. Last summer, the I-Team exposed the mistreatment of horses and mules and how tourists, including visitors from Las Vegas, unwittingly support the abuse. 

"We didn't know what to do for the horse and you can hear him breathing, he had sweat pouring off his body," said Courtney, who did not want to reveal her last name. She did a phone interview in May 16, 2017.

The mother and her two daughters were deeply disturbed by what they witnessed on a hot day last summer. When an overloaded horse collapsed on the trail into Havasu Canyon, it's handler kicked the animal.

"The packer did tell us the horse did this all the time and that he was just taking a rest. Once the saddle was off him, you could see all the saddle sores. He had them all over, all open bloody sores," Courtney said.

The trail into the canyon is littered with the remains of pack animals that didn't make it. Horses and mules are often overloaded on the 8-mile trek to the bottom. Typically they are driven hard, can't stop for food or water, and when one falls, several can be injured at once.

The animals often stand in the sun for hours, without water. A Las Vegas veterinarian saw a seemingly healthy horse collapse under excessive weight.  Then it was loaded up again.  About 300 people per day make the trek to the bottom of the canyon, the ancestral home of the Havasupai.

Wander beyond the campground -- as the I-Team did -- and you will easily spot horses and mules hundreds of pounds underweight, so hungry they eat bark off trees. Many of them with exposed ribs, open sores, broken bones left standing in piles of feces. For many, life is miserable, and short.

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

She couldn't stand hearing the stories anymore, so she founded SAVE, Stopping Animal Violence.  Her website has become a clearinghouse for photos, videos, and testimonials about systemic abuse of tribal pack animals that has been reported for more than 40 years.

The material on the website is explicit, horses worn right down to their exposed bones. Tourism generates millions of dollars per year, more than enough to properly care for the animals. When questioned about the abuse, the tribe has traditionally said the incidents are isolated, not typical. But Ash says, the kind of cases reported by the I-Team last summer are still common.

"They can't continue to abuse and starve and beat animals like this and expect that nobody is ever going to notice and do something about it," Ash said.

One  incident occurred just before Christmas. A hiker injured below had no choice but to be carried out on horseback.

"She was horrified. She literally cried for three hours having to be on the horse in such horrible condition," Ash said.

She says there is evidence the public pressure is starting to work. Various enforcement agencies are now paying attention. Tribal member Leland Joe, with a long history of horrific animal abuse, was arrested by federal agents in 2016, sentenced to probation but was banned from ever owning horses.

In October, a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent arrested Cecil Watahomigie whose horse was emaciated and had open sores. He was scheduled to appear in federal court but pleaded guilty in tribal court instead and got probation.

In December, tribal member Sun Eagle, long suspected of animal abuse, rented horses to a group, including an Arizona woman with plenty of equine experience. She was horrified by their emaciated condition and that the handler repeatedly whipped them during the climb.

"When we got to the top, I was so upset, I was sobbing. I told the group, I don't want to see any pictures, or photos on Facebook or anywhere. I don't want anyone else to come here, there's so much abuse," said Jennifer Koselke, witnessed animal abuse.

Four of Sun Eagle's horses were seized and the tribe recently elected a new chairman. Ash hopes change is coming.

"I hope that maybe in the next six months, you and I can talk and I can tell you, they put this in place, they put that in place. Anybody seen beating or kicking or whipping or throwing rocks at their animals is arrested. I hope I can tell you some of those things the next time we talk, but right now, I can't."

Last fall, the tribe allowed a team of animal welfare experts to enter the village to offer veterinary care and food for the pack animals. A spokesperson told the I-Team there is a tentative agreement for the group to return again sometime this year.

Susan Ash says the only way to fix these problems for good is for visitors to report cases of abuse and for hikers to stop renting pack animals from the outfitters who operate in the canyon.


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