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Katie Costello – Mustangs of the USA

Profile Costello LEMag September 2021

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Live Encounters Magazine September 2021

Katie Costello was born and raised in Hubbard, Ohio, USA. Her greatest passion in life has always been to help animals. She is lucky enough to be a licensed veterinary technician and owner of The Canine Campus Training and Wellness Center where she helps animals through behavior work. A vegetarian since she was 6 years old and a vegan for the last 13 years, she currently has 6 dogs, 6 cats,  8 chickens,  3 roosters 1 very special turkey  and 3 farm pigs that are amongst her dearest friends. She is founder of 2 non-profit organizations, K-9’s for Compassion (Co-founded with her father), a therapy animal group and The Together 3 Journey, a service dog organization. She has been on the board of many animal organizations throughout her life, including Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary and C.H.A.I.N. (Community Helping Animals In Need) and SVBT (Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians) She enjoys freelance writing about (mostly) animals for different magazines, with her favorite being Live Encounters!

One of the families of the Onaqui herd. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

One of the families of the Onaqui herd. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

Mustangs of the USA

Just say the word mustang and it conjures up images of the pioneers, the wild west, the pony express, the days of cowboys and Indians.  To me nothing says what it is to be truly American more than a mustang.  They are the very image of freedom and land on the range.   It also speaks to the special bond that people have with horses.  A partnership that has been around for so long the two have forged a road that is inseparable.  Yet the plight of the mustang is in danger, and many aren’t even aware there is a problem.  Over the next few issues, I will be taking a deep dive into the many sides of the problem, and hopefully empowering you to join the revolution to save the wild mustangs, and all free horses everywhere.

Mustangs are still running free in California, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Texas, Idaho, and New Mexico in the West; and wild (feral) horses are still running free in MD, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.  The Interior of Defense Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Manages 179 areas of horses throughout the states in the west.

The definition of a Mustang according to Merriam-Webster is a “small hardy naturalized horse of U.S. western plains directly descended from horses brought in by the Spaniards.”  There are many other wild herds of horses on the East Coast that are not in danger of being rounded up: however, they do come with their own sets of problems.   It should also be noted that while we call mustangs “wild” horses, they are not native to our land, coming of Spanish descent.  They are truly “feral” horses from domesticated stock that has been turned out to fend for themselves, even though they have been feral for hundreds of years.  It is thought that the mustangs were brought by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century.  The word Mustang comes from “Mestengo” or “Mostrenco”, meaning wild or masterless cattle.

I think as anyone masters their craft more, they see many different layers to any perspective problem.  This happens naturally and slowly, as you see more and more from the trenches.  For me this has evolved in a lifetime of working with animals, and seeing how, for so many people, it is all from our human perspective.  We really don’t give animals a say in much of anything.  We are certain that we know what is best, or we don’t care in the first place to look deeper into facts.  The meat industry for the most part survives because it is all hidden from view.  Most people are only concerned about the food on their plate, not how or what it is that gets them there.  We live in this “Us versus them” society, and it allows these thoughts and attitudes to persist, which is a great disadvantage to the animals that we love so deeply.

There is something called The Five Freedoms. These are globally recognized as the gold standard in animal welfare, encompassing both the mental and physical well-being of animals; they include: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior, and freedom from fear and distress.  During the discussions in future issues, we will dance around several of these.  You might want to mull over these truths to see where we may be lacking.

I think it is really important to understand how strongly horses bond.  Their band is a family.  Their stallion will fight to maintain the herd and protect them.  The mares and their foals are inseparable.  Truly, they form incredibly strong bonds with each other.  To separate them is torcher.

Member of the Onaqui herd. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

Member of the Onaqui herd. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

The Wild Horse and Burro Act

Taken directly from the Bureau of Land Managements (BLM) webpage we learn how this act came to be. “During the 1950s, Velma B. Johnston, later known as “Wild Horse Annie,” became aware of the ruthless and indiscriminate way wild horses were being treated on western rangelands.  So-called “mustangers” played a major role in harvesting wild horses for commercial purposes during this time.

Wild Horse Annie led a grassroots campaign, famously involving many school children.  Newspapers published articles about the exploitation of wild horses and burros.  As noted by the Associated Press on July 15, 1959: “Seldom has an issue touched such a responsive chord.”

In January 1959, Nevada Rep. Walter Baring introduced a bill prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles to hunt wild horses and burros on public lands.  The “Wild Horse Annie Act” became Public Law 86-234 on Sept. 8, 1959, but it did not include Annie’s recommendation that Congress initiate a program to protect, manage and control wild horses and burros.

By 1971, the population of wild horses on public lands had declined significantly because of the encroachment of man and the impact of mustangers.

In response to public outcry, Congress unanimously passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” (Public Law 92-195) to provide for the necessary management, protection and control of wild horses and burros on public lands.  President Richard M. Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15, 1971.

Since passage, the Act has been amended by Congress on four different occasions. Read the full, amended text of the law.”

This law means that wild horses and burros are the only two animals in the United States protected by law as national symbols of freedom in our country.

Member of the Onaqui herd with the Onaqui mountains in the background. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

Member of the Onaqui herd with the Onaqui mountains in the background. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.


So, what happens at these gathers?  A helicopter will fly low and scare the horses forcing them to run.  They strategically have corrals set up to capture the horses, and as the bands come together because there is safety in numbers, the BLM will release a “Judas” horse that runs into the enclosure and the mustangs often follow into the trap.   From there, the pregnant mares and the foals that can’t keep up are often separated.  Even the herds that can stay together are separated by sex upon entering the coral.  Life as they have always known it is over.  Accidents happen (And are reported in the BLM gather reports, seen here ) It is not uncommon for stallions to break their necks trying to free themselves.  At the Onaqui gather in July of 2021 a mare broke her ankle and had to be euthanized.  These gathers break up families, are traumatizing, and in one fell swoop these horses lose their freedom.  They no longer have any say in their life, which particularly for the stallions is everything.

Who manages these horses?  The BLM, or Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management.  More than 60 percent of their $100 million (Taxpayer dollars) for horse and burro management budget goes to caring for horses that they have rounded up.  Each horse under the care of the BLM, on average, will equal $50,000 during their lifetime to take care of them.  This means they have limited money remaining to pursue innovative measures.  One of the future articles will go into much depth about the BLM, how they manage and the reasons they claim the need for the gathers in the first place and speak truth or dispel the myths surrounding this topic.  For a preview and more information on the BLM see here

I found an article written by Bruce Nock; PhD entitled “Wild Horses the Stress of Captivity” particularly interesting.  You can read the entire article here.  He explains how “The BLM reported that 20-30 mares “miscarried” in association with the Calico Complex Gather.  In addition to the miscarriages, one wonders whether and how many fetuses were resorbed by mares?   Fight or flight dictates that digestion comes to a screeching halt as soon as the horse was alarmed.  Perfect conditions for the development of intestinal compactions and colic-the #1 killer of horses.  The same can be said for the horses reported to be “not adapting to hay.”  Of course not!  Let’s be honest.  It has nothing at all to do with the hay and probably little to do with the change of diet.  It’s about being scared out of their wits and the sympathetic tone shutting down processes related to appetite and digestion.  He continues to explain that psychological stress, regardless of the source, also activated the fight-or-flight reaction.  That means the bad news for wild horses only begins with the gather.  There is the confinement itself, imagine how stressful confinement is particularly in a species that runs for survival to be held within 4 walls of a stable.  There is social unrest and don’t overlook the importance of such things as the loss of or separation from lifelong herd mates, companions, and family.  Boredom goes along with captivity and loss of control.

People like Dr. Sue McDonnell and Dr. Catherine Torcivia from University of Pennsylvania are looking for better solutions to gathers.  Dr. McDonnell is Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), Animal Behavior Society, Adjunct Professor of Reproductive Behavior, New Bolton Center, Clinical Associate, Widener Hospital, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and Founding head of the Equine Behavior Program.  At the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine they are using drones on a limited study group of horses to see if they can accomplish the same result with much less stress.  While more work must be done, preliminary results were looking promising.  See more information in this article

I spoke with Dr. McDonnell who was able to pose the problem in many ways to me.  She had personally spoken to Ranchers, BLM cowboys and BLM management all the way through the highest person in Washington overseeing the BLM.  People are at such opposing opinions it is hard to really get anything done.  She explained how the BLM is in between a rock and a hard place.  That they have gathered so many horses and don’t have ability to adopt them.  All their money is going to taking care of the horses from the gathers, and there isn’t money left over for a better solution.

We all have something to learn from one another.   The ranchers, the BLM workers, the animal rights groups, the volunteers, they are all  important piece of the puzzle and where the answer to this lies.  But we all must work together, and accept that we all don’t feel the same, but there are still pieces to take away from each person.

Recently I was able to photograph the Onaqui herd.  I can’t express in words the beauty of those creatures, or the freedom you felt standing amongst them.  I went with Jenn Rogers, one of the founders of RedBirdsTrust, a 501©3 group that helps the mustangs at Onaqui horses.   Jenn is very knowledgeable about the horses, and the gathers.  The truth of the matter is that ALL the mustangs in the West are in danger of roundup.  When we first arrived in Utah, loving all animals, I was super excited to see the cattle running free and I couldn’t figure out the entire thing at all.  As we were there, pieces started to come together.  It was a sight to behold, coming from Ohio where we are void of wild horses or free ranging cattle.

Horses are in a class all their own.  In other species people have determined it is okay to have “hunting seasons” because things are out of balance, probably because we eliminate all the natural predators.  So, we justify these hunts.  The problem is that the American public doesn’t think it is okay to hunt horses.  We don’t think it is okay for the horses to go to slaughter for the meat industry.  and while BLM feels that there are too many horses for the land to sustain, (even though 8 times as many cattle wander free on the range, called “Welfare ranching”, the horses are the problem.  So they are gathered and placed on land in hopes of adoption.  (This is only one of many reasons that the BLM justifies removal of the horses.

The National Academy of Sciences in a report commissioned by the BLM is concerned about gathers contributing to population growth rates. They have urged BLM to adopt the use of an injectable birth control injection called PZP.  PZP was first used in the Assateague population in 1988 and has worked very well in controlling and maintaining their herds.  However, the land mass is much smaller than on the range.  Another problem with PZP is that you must be able to dart the horses every 2 years to be effective.  This has been tested in multiple forms on different herds in the west with good results.  See entire article here.

One of the many arguments against horses is that they are destroying the land.  Yet, wild horses occupy less than 12% of BLM managed lands.  Livestock graze on 88% of BLM lands and vastly outnumber mustangs and burros, thus their impacts are exponentially higher.

I am looking very forward to sharing an in depth look at 3 parts to this problem in future issues-BLM’s side, Ranchers side, Animal rights side and how to take action to help mustangs on many levels.

Onaqui herd with the Onaqui mountains in the background. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

Onaqui herd with the Onaqui mountains in the background. Photograph by Katie Costello while travelling on the famed Pony Express at Tooelle, Utah.

This is a topic that I am very passionate about.  These horses have admittedly stolen my soul, and I spend every second of vacation that I possibly can in their presence.  However, I fully believe that it is important to understand all sides of the problem.  It is only when you understand those different opinions that you can truly formulate an educated opinion about any problem.  That is my goal with these articles.  I want to present you with all sides, to allow you to form an opinion that makes sense to you.  And my hope is to ignite a fire within each of you to show the importance of the lives of these horses, and their true wildness. To honor them for the beings that they are, and what they stand for.  To find truth in ourselves to do what is right, truly right.  I am reminded of the speech by Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes who said some of the most powerful words I have ever read: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

©Katie Costello