The response to an especially ugly round-up of wild horses in Oregon suggests we might.

A group of wild horses are rounded up in Eureka, Nevada. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A group of wild horses are rounded up in Eureka, Nevada. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


Pacific Standard, Dec. 2, 2015

Any company that sells tuna—one of the most popular foods eaten globally—has the option of including a “dolphin safe” label on its product. Monitored by Earth Island International, the label ensures that your tuna was harvested without the use of drift gill nets, which often accidentally trap dolphin. The general idea behind this specialized labeling initiative is simple enough: Consumers should know if one animal species was killed in order for us to harvest another one.

Of course, the concept is necessarily discriminatory. An incalculable number of non-food animals die to bring food animals to our plates. Billions of rodents perish to grow corn and soy for animal feed; billions more are killed when rainforests are cleared for grazing cattle; and—if we want to throw insects into the mix—a nearly infinite number of them are exterminated as a sort of by-catch to accommodate humanity’s steady diet of meat, eggs, and dairy.

But—justifiably or not—dolphins are in a special category. Not only are dolphins unusually intelligent creatures, but they are non-threatening to humans, threatening to sharks, beloved performers at SeaWorld, popular stuffed animals, and frequently anthropomorphized for the purposes of television entertainment. For these reasons, humans (in Western cultures at least) have invested dolphins with a special status. Whatever the precise nature of that status, it’s enough to make dolphin protection a priority on a can of tuna fish.

Many Americans share the view that there’s something sort of majestically sacred about mustangs, at least sacred enough to prevent welfare-ranchers from selling us subsidized beef at the supermarket.

To accept this preferential logic compels us to lend other iconic animals special status as well. The most notably comparable case might be the wild horse—or mustang. Western ranchers holding permits from the Bureau of Land Management to graze cattle on public land compete with mustangs for access to forage within designated wild horse habitats. While 2014 year-end grazing receipts show the equivalent of at least 37 cattle for every wild horse on grazing lands managed by the BLM, mustangs aren’t in any way privileged beyond the soft protections offered by the 1971 Wild Horse and Burros Act. As a result, public-land ranchers routinely call on the BLM to round-up wild horses and remove them from federal land, preserving the forage for cattle. The BLM pens the captured mustangs in a holding facility, from which few are adopted and most die in captivity. Thousands, as revealed by a recent investigative report from the Department of the Interior, have been sold to “kill buyers” and shipped to Mexico for slaughter.

A BLM round-up targeting 1,400 mustangs (half the population of the state) was recently completed in Oregon. It played out in familiar fashion. A Burns, Oregon, rancher organization called the Beatys Butte Grazing Association pressured the BLM to remove horses from a federally designated wild horse habitat. The BLM complied. Several members of Beatys Butte market their beef through a cooperative called Country Natural Beef, which is a major supplier to Whole Foods.

In response to this latest round-up, Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, wrote to Whole Foods. While admiring the company’s “commitment to ethical food sourcing,” she explained, “Whole Foods is endorsing and contributing to this unnecessary and inhumane removal of America’s cherished and iconic mustangs from our public lands.” Roy asked Whole Foods to adopt a policy to exclude the sale of meat from animals grazed on public lands in designated wild horse habitat areas. To the company’s credit, Whole Foods responded within days. Less to its credit, it passed the buck. The company’s executive global meat coordinator wrote to Roy in an email that “we have reached out to Country Natural Beef to relay the concerns expressed in your thoughtful letter and have encouraged them to engage with you directly on working toward solutions to the issues at-hand.” That, of course, is corporate speak for “please go away.”

But horse advocates tend to not go away. As this exchange played out, and as Roy continued to correspond with CNB executives, wild horse advocates started to document the BLM round-up with photos and written reports. These accounts highlight the hidden brutality of mustang capture, a brutality induced by the panic that horses experience when being corralled, often by helicopters working in tandem. On November 19, for example, “there were 5 deaths on this day,” including “one 8 year old mare with old break in right hind leg and one 4 month old colt with old break in left hind leg.” By November 22, “the death toll climbed to 16 horses.” One report observed: “The most heartbreaking [scene] of the day involved the foals. The helicopters are running these horses from very long distances, and often foals just can’t keep up for as long as the rest of their herd.”

And another: “There was also a solid white foal that had initially come in with a very large group. He ran as fast as he could the entire time, but it was not fast enough to keep up with the rest of the horses. He could see his family ahead of him in the distance and headed in that direction to the trap. He was roped, and struggled — we could hear him screaming from our observation.”

And so on.

When Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burros Act in 1971 it declared mustangs to be iconic reflections of America’s heritage, an integral part of the Western wilderness ideal. Whatever the merits or demerits of this characterization, it seems safe to assume that many Americans share the view that there’s something sort of majestically sacred about mustangs, at least sacred enough to prevent welfare-ranchers from selling us subsidized beef at the supermarket. Horse advocates have been fighting this issue at the point of production—the harsh Western landscape—for decades. But now, in a more enlightened era of food transparency, attentiveness to supply chains, and a mania for labels, they would be wise to complement their battle to protect mustangs on the consumption end of the equation. A “mustang-safe” beef label might not be a bad place to begin.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.