As the busy tourist season draws to a close for the popular waterfalls on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, controversy about the treatment of some pack animals owned by tribal members has persisted.

For its part, the tribe said it has fully implemented an inspection and permitting process it began in mid-August. Through a public relations firm, the tribe reported it has inspected all 230 horses owned by tribal members in the village of Supai in Grand Canyon, which includes 156 that are used for packing. According to answers provided through the firm, all but two animals have now been deemed to be in good enough condition to carry packs the 20 miles up and down the canyon each day.

And yet reports from some visitors, one nonprofit working on the issue, as well as this reporter’s experience as a tourist in Supai, suggest the care of at least some horses is still falling through the cracks.

Tribal process

Over the summer, in response to mounting public attention on the poor treatment of some pack horses used to haul tourists’ gear to and from the Havasupai waterfalls, the tribe temporarily closed its reservation to commercial outfitters. In the interim, it developed a system for scoring horses based on body condition. Horses that meet a body condition score of 4 out of 9 are allowed to pack. A score of 5 to 6 is considered optimal for packing horses, according to the scoring chart provided by the tribe. The chart does not mention wounds or hoof care as a factor in the horses’ evaluation, though that has been a concern brought up by many visitors.

In response to questions about how the permit system was working, Abbie Fink of HMA Public Relations, which was hired by the tribe, reported that upon original inspection, nine horses did not meet the minimum standards, but since then seven have been authorized to pack.

According to the new system, tribal entities and private outfitters who use the horses must ensure that their packer owners have a permit, which are issued by the tribe’s Animal Control Office and are valid for 60 days, Fink wrote in an email. Those permits include descriptions of horses that cannot be used on the reservation as a source of transportation, the email said.

As for pack weight limits, Fink wrote that a 130-pound per-horse limit is relayed to those making packing reservations and the tribe’s tourism office has assigned individuals to monitor items assigned to packers.

Scales will be reinstalled in time for the 2017 tourist season, she wrote.

When contacted by phone, Tribal Chairman Don Watahomigie indicated that progress is being made, but there is still work to do.

“The ones still in pretty bad shape cannot be used and they are getting back into shape,” he said.

Questioning the tribe's progress

Visitors who traveled to Supai over the fall came away with a mix of reviews of the horses’ treatment. One tourist, Rita Gibbs, said her eyes were opened, and not in a good way.

A resident of Tucson who grew up with horses, Gibbs traveled to Supai and the nearby waterfalls at the end of October and said she saw at least five animals that appeared malnourished, neglected or suffering from noticeable wounds.

On her way through the village she saw at least three visibly skinny horses and mules, one of which had “horrendously overgrown hooves," she said. Gibbs described another “incredibly skinny” mule that was saddled up and had an abscessed wound on its side at least 3 inches across.

“It basically ruined the whole experience for me, seeing all those incredibly skinny animals,” Gibbs said.

Another user posting on Trip Advisor stated that “Sept 4/5 we witnessed a starving horse tied to a post in the hot sun with no food, water or shade for two days, until we reported it to the local police.”

It is reviews like those that has Susan Ash doubtful that the Havasupai are truly enforcing the new permit system. Ash, founder of the Stop Animal ViolencE Foundation, said photos and reviews keep coming out that talk about horses in visibly poor condition and said she would like to see documentation from the tribe that the new standards are being enforced and that there are consequences if they are not.

“It really becomes incumbent on the tribe and outfitters as well to show some good faith by providing evidence of what they're actually doing,” said Ash, whose organization focuses on improving treatment of the horses on the Havasupai reservation. “We're providing eyewitness accounts and pictures and tell me what they provide?”

Not all all online trip reviews bemoaned the state of the horses though.

“We did not see abuse to the pack mules/horses, and I was looking,” one TripAdvisor user stated about an October visit. Though the post continued, however, that “We did stumble across horse corpse off path.”

Another TripAdvisor user who visited in September said: “Can't express how beautiful this trip was and happy to report the horses are taken better care of and looked so much healthy (sic) this time around.”

Another perspective came from Greg Smith, director of the Veterinary Christian Foundation that has provided veterinary care for the tribe annually for the past 34 years.

Smith declined to be interviewed, citing a fragile relationship with the tribe as well as a contractual agreement his group had made with the tribe not to discuss its work.

“I will tell you the overall health and shape of the livestock has steadily improved,” Smith wrote in an email.

This reporter also traveled to the Havasupai reservation in October and took several photos of the horses and spoke to three tribal members while visiting as a tourist and not in a reporting capacity.

In the photos, at least two horses' ribs and hip bones are clearly visible. When the images were sent to Michelle Ryan, executive director of the Coconino Humane Association, she said one of the horses looked underweight and another looked obviously thin, though she hesitated to rank the horses on the 9-point scale because different breeds are naturally heavier and others are naturally thinner.

The tribe did not respond with any explanation when sent photos of the horses. 

According to the ranking system used by the tribe, being able to see the horses' ribs may not indicate it is unfit to pack. On a horse with a passing body score of 4, the outline of the ribs "can just be seen," though "withers, neck, and shoulders do not look obviously thin."  

Also in October, three tribal members at Hualapai Hilltop who were loading up horses or staffing the permit booth said they weren’t aware of the newly implemented permit system when asked about it. One also acknowledged there is not any water available for horses at the top of the canyon trail, because there is no running water anywhere on Hualapai Hilltop.

When asked about those answers and the horses' condition, Watahomigie said tribal members, especially as people who aren’t in positions to speak to the public in an official capacity, are simply reluctant to speak to anyone about the horses.

“They have distorted a lot of things down here,” Watahomigie said, referring to people who have publicized information or photos about the pack animals on social media and elsewhere.

He also said some details get lost in translation.

“One thing that we say can be interpreted in a whole different perspective in the real world,” he said. 

He accused some people of using old pictures of horses “they saw years ago.” 

“A lot of the stuff is not really what it really is,” Watahomigie said.

He also said the tribe has someone “on board” who has visited two to three times to take a look at the tribe’s horses and write a letter that will go out to animal advocates.

He said the woman is a writer but didn’t explicitly confirm or explain whether she has qualifications to assess the horses’ condition, saying instead, “I don't think we would hire anybody other than somebody like that.”

Shea Carpenter, with Havasu Horse Project, has traveled to Supai three times to provide veterinary work for the pack animals. She said trust was lost and things went backwards between outside groups and the tribe over the spring and summer as images of mistreated horses spread across the internet.

“There is a better way," Carpenter said. "Attacking (tribal members) only makes them put their guard up higher.” 

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

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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