A Havasupai tribal member arrested last month on animal cruelty charges related to one of his pack horses will no longer face those charges in federal court.
Instead, Cecil Watahomigie was prosecuted and pled guilty to animal cruelty and alcohol possession charges in Havasupai Tribal Court on Thursday, the day before he was set to appear in federal court.
Watahomigie lives in the village of Supai on the Havasupai reservation and owns horses that he uses to haul goods — mainly tourists’ gear — to and from the popular waterfalls just below the village.
He was arrested Sept. 19 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on charges of animal neglect and failure to provide medical attention to one of his pack horses, which was found to be malnourished, abused and suffering from multiple untreated wounds and open sores.
He was also charged with a misdemeanor related to the possession of alcohol, which is illegal on the reservation.
In tribal court on Thursday, Watahomigie pled guilty to one count of animal cruelty and one count of liquor possession, both of which violate tribal law.
He was sentenced to a 30-day jail term that is suspended for the term of his probation, which is six months. His horse will remain in the custody of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for at least three months. The sentence calls for tribal animal control and/or probation officials to inspect Watahomigie’s horses at random, without notice and provide monthly updates. Watahomigie’s confiscated horse could be returned to him if he is able to demonstrate that he is able to properly care for his horses.
In Friday’s hearing at U.S. District Court in Flagstaff, U.S. Attorney Paul Stearns announced that the federal government would move to dismiss all three charges against Watahomigie because they were being addressed in tribal court.
Watahomigie declined to comment as he left the courtroom.
According to a statement provided by the Havasupai Tribe earlier this month in response to Watahomigie’s case, the tribe has hired for the first time a tribal prosecutor who is a licensed attorney and a tribal court judge who is also an attorney.
“These efforts have resulted in animal abuse convictions by the Havasupai Tribal Court,” said the statement, provided by a public relations firm hired by the tribe.
Stearns acknowledged the hiring of those legal officials and the tribe’s implementation of animal care standards for pack horses, saying that while there is still work to do, the tribe “has made a lot of progress in the past year and a half.”
A year and a half ago, another member of the Havasupai Tribe, Leland Joe, was arrested by federal authorities on animal cruelty charges. Four of Joe’s horses were found to be severely underweight and had open sores on their backs, hips and shoulder areas from packs constantly rubbing against their skin. After pleading guilty to two animal cruelty misdemeanor charges related to one of the horses, Joe was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and was ordered to permanently give up all four of the horses that were confiscated by the BIA during his arrest.
It was the first known federal prosecution of animal cruelty in Indian Country, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
HISTORY OF HORSE ABUSE
A Flagstaff veterinarian who evaluated Watahomigie’s horse in July characterized its body condition as a 2.5 to 3 out of a 9-point scale. An optimum body score for working horses is 5 or 6 and the tribe’s standards state that horses must meet a score of 4 to be approved for packing.
According to court documents, the veterinarian said Watahomigie’s horse suffered from chronic malnourishment, open and chronic skin lesions resulting from poorly fitted packs and a lesion on its tongue suggesting it had at one point been nearly severed.
According to additional evidence filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Watahomigie’s case, several other horses that had been under his care or ownership suffered from extreme malnutrition and mistreatment.
“This evidence predates the current case and will support that the condition of the horse at issue in this case was not an accident, a mistake, or a ‘one off' condition. Moreover, this evidence will support the defendant’s knowledge and intent, in that he uses and abuses his horses, and then gets rid of them, often selling them to rescue groups or concerned individuals,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in its filing.
The evidence refers to two horses that a citizen rescued from Watahomogie in June 2016 and March 2017. Photos of the horse rescued in 2016 shows the animal was severely underweight, with skin stretched taut over its ribs and backbone, and had overgrown hooves. It was eventually euthanized.
Other horses were rescued from Watahomigie in approximately 2014, one of which was “extremely emaciated and malnourished” with hooves that were not properly maintained, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office evidence.
The Havasupai Tribe’s statement emphasized its continuing partnership with animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States. Such work aims to provide ongoing training, care and equipment for pack animals in Supai. The tribe's Animal Control Office enforces regulations daily regarding animal packing and health and the tribe has made prosecution of animal cruelty-related offenses a top priority, according to the statement.
“The Tribe is very concerned about the health and welfare of our animals. So many of our tribal members rely on them for income, but they mean something more than just that to us. We have grown up around our horses and mules; cruelty is not the Havasupai way," Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie said in the statement. "With our tribal prosecutor and tribal judge, along with the animal control office, we are working diligently to identify those few tribal members who engage in this type of behavior and allow our tribal court system to prosecute such individuals.”
Watahomigie is not immediately related to Cecil Watahomigie, according to the public relations firm that provided the statement.
In an interview last year, Watahomige noted the challenge of importing horse feed to the village of Supai, eight miles into the Grand Canyon.
“Our feed comes 100-some miles away and then has to be brought down by horse, packed down, and sometimes that is not easy,” the chairman said at the time.
About 30 percent of Havasupai Tribal members live below the poverty line, according to the latest Census Bureau data, and the cost of feeding and properly taking care of a pack horse amounts to thousands of dollars a year.
Soleil Dolce, vice president of Arizona Equine Rescue Organization, estimated it costs $4,800 annually to provide adequate feed and care for a working horse, but that’s for a horse in the Phoenix area. The situation in Supai is much different. There is no veterinarian, so much of the care is done by volunteer organizations that make trips to the reservation, while feed must be brought in from far away, so costs are ratcheted up, Dolce said.
Feed expenses are even higher for horses that are underweight and recovering from wounds and mistreatment. Michelle Ryan, executive director of the Coconino Humane Association, which has taken in several horses from the Havasupai Reservation, said the nonprofit spent an average of $550 per horse for veterinary services and $200 per month per horse for feed when they were trying to help the animals gain weight.