It was about a year ago when a surge in media reports turned national attention toward the mistreatment of some pack horses and mules on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, known for its Grand Canyon setting and turquoise waterfalls. Visitors spoke out about seeing malnourished and wounded animals, a new horse advocacy group came on the scene and one tribal member was arrested on animal cruelty charges related to one of his pack horses.
Through that time, and even before then, Kellye Pinkleton had been trying to get in touch with the Havasupai Tribe to see how her organization could help the pack animals.
The Arizona state director at The Humane Society of the United States, Pinkleton spent months reaching out to tribal officials, the public relations firm hired by the tribe and the tribe’s attorney. She wanted to find a way to set up a sustained effort to provide direct care to the horses and mules as well as education to their owners, she said.
After eventually securing a meeting with the Havasupai Tribal Council last fall, Pinkleton got permission for the Humane Society to take its first trip to the Havasupai village of Supai in mid-May. The hope is that it will be the first of what will become regular service trips to the community, Pinkleton said.
“We definitely want this to be a long term effort,” she said. “I think there is a lot more that can be done and we have the tribal council's willingness to partner.”
Pinkleton calls it a big step that the tribe has agreed to partner with the nation’s largest animal welfare group on improving the condition of horses and mules owned by tribal members.
Tribal officials, too, were positive about the upcoming trip, with the tribal chairman on Friday giving positive feedback about the group’s reputation and what it has to offer, as well as noting that the tribe feels comfortable with the group.
But at least one other organization, while supportive of the effort, points out that despite many other organizations making similar service trips over the years, at least some of the Havasupai’s pack animals continue to suffer.
“Efforts have been made before and they haven’t gotten much traction. It remains to be seen whether the Humane Society’s effort will or not,” said Susan Ash with the nonprofit Stop Animal Violence Foundation, which is focuses on raising awareness about pack animals in Havasupai.
Representatives with the Humane Society of the United States as well as other equine-related nonprofits in Arizona will be making the trip to Supai, eight miles into Grand Canyon, Pinkleton said. They will travel with a team of two veterinarians, two equine dentists and a farrier. Volunteers with the organizations, which include Equine Voices and Healing Hearts Animal Rescue, are also experienced with horses, Pinkleton said.
The group will 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, she said. The volunteers will bring donated food as well as vaccines and dental, medical, farrier and saddle supplies.
Tribal officials were hesitant at first about working with the Humane Society, but Pinkleton said she feels the distrust has dissipated.
“There has been some trust established and to me that makes a lot of things possible that wouldn’t be otherwise,” she said.
She acknowledged that concerns about the treatment of horses and mules in Supai have existed for years despite repeated trips by individuals and organizations to provide care for the pack animals. But Pinkleton said she sees signs that things may be starting to change for the better, including the fact that the tribe was willing to meet and collaborate with the Humane Society. She sees the tribe’s new licensing and animal permitting system as a positive step and was encouraged when the tribe last year sent its animal control officer to an animal cruelty training put on by the Humane Society and hosted by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
While veterinary groups have been traveling to Supai for the past 20 to 25 years, the tribe will need continued assistance into the future, tribal councilmember Ophelia Watahomogie-Corliss said in an interview Friday. Without its own veterinary clinic, she said the Havasupai Tribe relies on voluntary organizations to bring and administer vaccines and medications.
“Those services benefit our remote village immensely and we are grateful for those services,” she said.
MORE TO BE DONE
Susan Ash, with the Stop Animal Violence Foundation, said she supports the Humane Society’s trip “100 percent” but time will tell whether it makes a long-term difference to the horses’ condition. She said she was disappointed to see that a source of water at the top of the trail from the canyon rim to Supai is not part of the help the organizations will be providing.
She estimated that her group still gets contacted on a weekly basis by visitors to the Havasupai waterfalls who report seeing animals that appear to be malnourished, poorly cared for or mistreated.
“We are hoping that the tribe really is sincere in its desire to improve conditions for those animals down there and allowing HSUS to come and help, but the proof is in results and results will be when people go down there and are coming back reporting animals are in good condition and get to drink water at Hilltop and don't see animals in Supai with open bleeding sores,” Ash said.
She said that over the past year since Havasupai tribal member Leland Joe was arrested for mistreatment of his horse, she hasn’t seen any major changes in the number of people lodging worried complaints about pack animals.
Watahomogie-Corliss said the tribe has been making progress, starting an animal control office and a licensing and permitting program under which horses that don’t meet minimum body condition requirements aren’t allowed to pack. Ash is one of those who remains doubtful that those new policies are being enforced. Watahomogie-Corliss said trekking companies who lead trips to Havasupai as well as tribal packers have been “more than happy” to comply with them. She said the tribe does not have current data on the number of horses that are in too poor of a condition to pack, nor any information on what the tribe is doing with the $7,500-per-year fee now charged to trekking companies as part of the new licensing system.
Both companies and tribal members “understand that the tribe as a whole just wants to take care of the wellbeing of the horses,” Watahomogie-Corliss said.
This article has been edited from its original version.