A Scientifically Sane, Humane Approach to Wild Horse Management: Renowned Wildlife Ecologist Craig Downer sticks up for Australian Brumbies
By Mae Lee Sun
“If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen would draw them to look like oxen, and each would make the gods bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.” - Xenophon
It’s a mild winter evening in the valley. As I walk across the paddock, a soft nicker from the youngest member of our herd, Trooper, a rescued brumby, in the distance signals all is well this evening on the farm on the edge of Gippsland, Victoria. As the fog rolls in the horses glide like ancestral ghosts against the backdrop of spotted gum trees, reminding me of how far we’ve come and yet the mountainous effort ahead in restoring the horse to its rightful place in the planet’s ecosystem. As political arguments continue on the merits of native or non-native species, a growing number of scientific researchers and wildlife ecologists, are speaking up for the horse, debunking the myth that they are destructive and need eradicating, especially here in Australia.
One such researcher, Craig Downer, kindly shared his research, expertise and thoughts with Wild Horse Journal to make sure the Australian brumby and wild horses the world over do not in fact become ghosts and haunt our psyche forever for not having honoured their overwhelmingly positive contribution to life as we humans and other flora and fauna know it.
For a little background, over the course of 40 years Craig has worked all over the world and the American West, to protect wild horses; has authored several books, numerous articles and helped to create several films that defend the wild horse living in the wild. He has given numerous testimonies before the Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Committee and been a Plantiff in numerous legal cases to defend the rights of the wild horses and burros to their designated resources, land and freedom. Craig is also a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission- the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization; a member of the American Society of Mammalogists; a board member of The Cloud Foundation; and President of the Andean Tapir Fund and its subdivision Wild Horse and Burro Fund. (see www.thewildhorseconspiracy.org and www.theandeantapirfund.com).
It’s no surprise then that Craig has two mustangs companions, Lightning, a palomino stallion, and Princess Diane, his curly mare whom Craig knew in the wilds of NW Nevada before they were captured by the BLM in 2010. He also composes music and has musical CD: Wild Horse Rhapsody and has recently updated and further perfected the research in his acclaimed book: The Wild Horse Conspiracy (available in print and ebook on Amazon.com)
Earlier this year his peer reviewed scientific article The Horse and Burro as Positively Contributing Returned Natives in North America was published in the prestigious American Journal of Life Sciences (a link to this is on www.thewildhorseconspiracy.org) whereby he promotes Reserve Design as a way of restoring harmonious wild horse populations that are life enhancing and naturally self stabilizing (the ‘How’s are covered in his book The Wild Horse Conspiracy).
WHJ: Not only are Australia’s wild horses, ‘Brumbies” considered ‘feral pests’, environmentalists and special interest groups aligned with ranching, claim that the horses damage the environment even though horses were shipped to and have lived in Australia since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the forests and outback have changed significantly due to the pressures of human development and economic interests.
CD: The brumbies are being scapegoated, or blamed for environmental destruction that the Europeans have caused by foisting hoards of sheep, cattle, etcetera upon the land. THIS is not the horses’ fault! Also the Australians intentionally ignore many of the positive contributions that horses make to an ecosystem, such as complementing ruminants by building soils and seeding many species of plants-and to a greater degree. Although it is true that the horse is not native to Australia, I find it very hypocritical as well as cruel and unjust how they are being treated there!
WHJ: Oddly enough, with the culling of brumbies deemed ‘Kind’ by the RSPCA in Australia, it seems culling- which is being done via aerial shooting from helicopter and/or passive trapping with baited yards- is on the increase. This is in direct contradiction to the efforts of the ASPCA (American Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals) and the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) whose officials like CEO, Wayne Pacelle, are supporting the anti-slaughter initiatives and are working to protect horses at all different levels. Would you care to comment on what involvement researchers like yourself have in this? Is contraception to control population ever considered as to its ecological impact?
CD: Contraception is being used, particularly PZP and skewing of sex ratios. I favour Reserve Design as a way of establishing ‘Self-Stabilizing’ populations of wild horses. I have a proposal to this effect. This proposal is outlined both in Chapter IV of my recently updated book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, and in my recently published scientific article: The Horse and Burro as Positively Contributing Returned Natives in North America. By means of idendifying and establishing a naturally or artificially bounded Reserve that is also a complete habitat for a long-term viable population of wild horses, the wild horses could be allowed to fill their ecological niche and to naturally self stabilize their population numbers in balance with all the other species. This is the intelligent and caring wayof dealing with wild horses. It is the right way, though it requires more conscientious effort and sacrifice on the part of us humans. You can link to my generalized Reserve Design proposal on https://thewildhorseconspiracy.org/about-us/request-design-proposal/
WHJ: Can this be extrapolated to Australia?
CD: It could also be applied in Australia to save the brumbies whilst at the same time containing them to certain areas. I hope this can be done. It would be the fair thing to do. I have written about Reserve Design in my book, The Wild Horse Conspiracy, and in my article, The Horse and Burro as positively contributing returned natives in North America. http://www.sciencepublishinggroup.com/j/ajls doi: 10.11648/j.ajls.20140201.12 You can also link to this article by going to http://thewildhorseconspiracy.org/resources then by selecting the title of my article as given above.
WHJ: What is it that wild horses (animals) know that we humans do not and perhaps should in regard to a ‘Balanced Ecosystem’?
CD: Yes! Excellent point! When the horses are set free in a sufficiently spacious and adequate habitat, their natural instincts for survival revive and they are capable of naturally self-limiting as ecological ‘Climax’ species. But we must let them do this, not be so impatient and imposing of our own selfish agendas!
WHJ: You’re referring specifically to pages 124- 130 in your book The Wild Horse Conspiracy where you offer a’Prosposed Solution- A way out’ whereby such things as long-term viable habitat, with respect to size, water provision, food availability, shelter, mineral requirements and elevational gradients are taken into consideration and serve a guide and sometimes with the assistance of employing natural and artificial barriers to create ‘true sanctuary’. Meaning, they will be out of harms way and under the oversight of qualified wildlife ecologists who have a particular knowledge of wild horse requirements unbeholden to wild horse adversaries. I see that you also encourage the involvement of local monitors who would protect the herds and derive benefit as would ecotourism that respects the wild herd and does not turn it into a petting zoo or feeding them which would defeat and degrade the design and jeopardize the animals correct?
CD: YES, ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! SO GLAD TO SEE YOU GET THIS POINT!
WHJ: What do you feel is the biggest barrier in changing not only perceptions but the future of the wild horse?
CD: Prejudice and a lack of patience and commitment to do the right thing, to do right by the horses and to learn to appreciate and be a harmonious part of a wild-horse-containing-ecosystem.
WHJ: If you were to advise the Australian Government – to include Andrew Cox, the CEO of the Invasive Species Council and his board (President, Esther Abram) and Secretary Paul Grimes, head of the Department of Agriculture, and Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment on a feasible wild horse management plan, how would you begin? Is there a model for it anywhere else? Dare I say Craig, that I suspect politicians would probably go straight to the issue of money (cost) to manage and what is the cheapest route- and don’t forget, horse slaughter (for domestic and wild horses) is ‘legal’ in Australia and there is currently an ‘industry’ that benefits from killing horses. Australia not only makes dog food from horses too slow off the tracks, but horses from owners and sanctuaries who can’t rehome, neglect or overbreed, in addition to legal and illegal brumby runners, make a few quid at the saleyards and knackery. This is alongside any meat that is exported for consumption in other countries. Your thoughts on HOW to actually ‘get’ to these folks, to have the conversation about the sustainability and cost effectiveness of Reserve Design coupled with a contraception program vs shooting? We don’t even have laws to protect even the most basic right for the horse to be free from harm.
CD: This is a most backward and disturbing situation and it must not continue. The innocent horses are being targeted and so unfairly. Yes, there is a way to get to these people by appealing to their higher conscience and their personal relationship to horses. And nearly everyone has such. Think about their childhood, horses they’ve ridden, the beauty they have admired in the horse, the wonderful presence of the horse as a highly evolved fellow being on earth. This is the way to reach these people, not by debasing our view of life to convert everything and everyone into money or material advantage. This is what is destroying life on earth. We must appeal to the higher sensibilities of people! I would be glad to come (to Australia) and give a presentation to these officials, in fact many presentations, and I should be able to come up with the round-trip ticket to Australia but would need some support while there. I could give slide shows on all these points and the points in my book with special adaptation to the Australian situation.
WHJ: What other wildlife ecologists and environmental scientists support wild horses being wild? I know that the Exmoor ponies have been reintroduced in The Netherlands in various nature reserves; the Retuerta horses have been reintroduced in Donana National Park in southern Spain; the Koniks in Cambridgeshire, England; ancient DNA, archaeological evidence and Native American cave paintings of equines has placed the mustangs existence and contribution to the ecosystem in America as centuries before the ‘Spaniard’ reintroduction, proving continued occupation.
In fact, biologist, Dr. Robert M Alison, from Canada, stated that “…subsequent evolution elsewhere over a period of perhaps 8,000 years (does not) make them non-indigenous” , and urged increased protection as contributors to North American biodiversity and has been trying to urge Canadian Parliament to protect them from strong persecution from ranchers and hunters.
Do you work with Dr. Alison and others?
CD: Yes, last year I made a tour in Canada and spoke with many wild horse and just horse advocates and made presentations. I spoke with member of Parliament Alexander Atamanenko and gave him my book. There is a strong movement there in Canada to gain protection of the wild horses and to stop the despicable slaughter and commerce in horses. A bill almost passed out of Parliament this year. Hopefully it will be passed next year. There are some ecologists I work with or cite who share this positive view of the wild horses. One of the foremost is Dr. Sergi A. Zimov who oversees a wonderful program in NE Siberia that involves the reestablishment of wild horses, muskoxen, saiga antelopes, etc., in order to re-establish the tundra grassland, especially where the permafrost is melting. This will help cool the atmosphere and stave off the more tragic consequences of global warming. Another is Robert Edwards who has worked for the BLM for years and who has come out publicly in opposition to the drastic herd reductions in America. He has written reports greatly refuting the unfairness that is involved in overly favouring livestock whilst scapegoating a small and non-viable population of wild horses. And there are many others both in America and all over the world who are not mesmerized by the biased disinformation campaign against these wonderful animals- who deserve to share the land and freedom to the extent possible and have so much to contribute to all life on earth and to the salvation of such!
WHJ: This is a far cry from the way humans typically look at ‘Sanctuary’ isn’t it? Anyone can put up a shingle in Australia and call themselves a horse rescue or sanctuary; and many have gone under due to lack of business acumen; dodgy intentions or any number of reasons, including not enough homes to rehome wild or domestic horses. Some horse advocacy organizations have even resorted to clever marketing campaigns to offload their horses, inventing contests fashioned after the Mustang Makeover in the U.S. and stating ‘at least it saves them slaughter’. What do you make of that?
CD: Yes, what I propose would be a way of avoiding all this torture and uncertain future for the precious individual horses involved. Reading your book Brumby: A celebration of Australia’s wild horses, I am heartened to learn that there are many fine caring people in Australia who value and respect the individual horse and would not merely set up and take advantage of horses in the way you above describe. The Reserve Design guided sanctuary would truly be an adequate habitat for a long-term viable population of wild horses, and by virtue of its design, the horses would be allowed to naturally self-stabilize, so the roundups (culls) and the miserable treatments would not be necessary. We humans would come to respect the horses in their rightful place. Believe me, we would all be the better off because of this, both horses and humans, so let’s just do it!
Wild Horse Journal would like to thank Craig Downer for generously giving his time for this interview. Plans are underway to bring Craig to Australia for a series of public talks. For more information contact Mae Lee Sun at firstname.lastname@example.org Craig Downer and his work can be found on: