A Havasupai tribal member has been arrested on animal cruelty charges after one of his pack horses was found to be malnourished, abused and suffering from multiple untreated wounds and open sores. 

Cecil Watahomigie was arrested Sept. 19 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and charged with three misdemeanors — two related to neglect and failure to provide medical attention to his horse and a third related to possession of alcohol, which is illegal on the reservation.

Another member of the tribe was arrested on similar charges last year. After that, the tribe implemented minimum body condition standards for horses used to haul tourists’ gear the 10 miles to or from the picturesque Havasupai waterfalls in the Grand Canyon. The regulations aim to prevent malnourished, overworked or injured horses from being allowed to carry heavy packs up and down the steep canyon trail, according to Abbie Fink, a spokeswoman with a public relations firm hired by the tribe.

But Watahomigie’s horse was in far worse condition than those tribal regulations allow. A Flagstaff veterinarian asked to evaluate the horse characterized its body condition as a 2.5 to 3out 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.

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.

The horse’s condition was similar to that of four horses owned by Havasupai tribal member Leland Joe, who was arrested by federal authorities last year on animal abuse charges. Joe’s horses were found to be skinny, malnourished and displaying deep sores from packs constantly rubbing against their skin. After pleading guilty to two animal cruelty misdemeanor charges, Joe was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and was ordered to give up the four horses.

TRIBAL RESPONSE

In response to news of Watahomigie's case, the Havasupai Tribe sent a statement through a public relations firm that emphasized the tribe's continuing partnership with animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States. Their 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.

It continued that 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. As the Tribe’s efforts are ongoing, other cases remain pending in Tribal Court," the statement said.

It included a statement by Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie, who is not immediately related to Cecil Watahomigie.

“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," 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.”

CASE DETAILS

According to the criminal complaint filed in the case, a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer received word on July 2 that Watahomigie appeared to be intoxicated as he was unpacking his horses near the campground area about two miles down canyon from the village of Supai. Watahomigie had bloodshot eyes, the scent of alcohol on his breath and was having difficulty getting on his horse, according to the report. The BIA agent arrested him for public intoxication under tribal law and confiscated his horse under concerns of animal cruelty. The horse’s backbone and ribs were easily visible as were sores on multiple places on its body, the agent reported.

A clear plastic bottle of whiskey was also found on the horse, the report said.

The BIA officer seized the horse as evidence and four days later the veterinarian traveled to Supai to evaluate the animal in person.

Since his initial appearance in federal district court on Sept. 21, Watahomigie has been released on his own recognizance with conditions that he refrain from any use of alcohol or narcotics or controlled substances, participate in substance abuse counseling or treatment and not possess any firearms.

He will return to court on Oct. 16 regarding a possible change of plea.

As for Watahomigie's horse, it has been kept in a BIA-controlled holding pen in Supai since it was confiscated this summer, according to Fink.

HELP AND REACTION

One advocacy organization is urging the public to show up at Watahomigie’s court appearance.

“We want everyone to see this issue really matters and there are a lot of people who are profoundly upset by it and want something done,” said Susan Ash with the group Stop Animal Violence, which focuses on improving the treatment of horses on the Havasupai reservation.

Watahomigie’s case proves that the tribe’s regulations aren’t being enforced, Ash said.

The group recently put up a billboard in the Kingman area urging tourists headed to Supai to report horse abuse if they see it.

Other organizations have organized veterinary trips to Supai to care for the animals there. In May, the Arizona branch of the Humane Society of the United States traveled to Supai as part of what the organization hoped would be a long-term effort. 

Trip organizers planned to host education sessions, meet with and offer consultation to tribal members, provide direct care of horses, help train animal control officers, provide advice on packing and training horses and deliver food and supplies, Kellye Pinkleton, the Arizona state director of the Humane Society, said in an interview in April.

This article has been edited to include a statement from the Havasupai Tribe that was received after the print deadline. 

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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