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Since promising last year to make prosecution of animal cruelty-related offenses a top priority, the Havasupai Tribe is reporting that three animal abuse cases in its tribal court have ended in convictions while two more individuals face counts of animal cruelty that were filed in the past month.

Pack animals like horses, mules and donkeys, the majority of which are owned by tribal members, are used to haul tourists’ gear to and from the famous blue-green waterfalls on Havasupai in Grand Canyon. The trail to the campground where most tourists stay is about 10 miles one way. 

Two years ago, federal authorities' arrest of a tribal member for abuse of his horses ignited widespread media attention and public concern as well as calls for increased regulation, enforcement and pressure on trekking companies that use pack horses. The tribe responded that it would implement a permit system for packers, inspect and score horses based on body condition and then require that horses meet a certain body condition to be allowed to pack.

Last year, after the arrest of a second tribal member on animal cruelty charges connected to one of his horses, the tribe announced it had hired a tribal prosecutor for the first time and a tribal court judge, both of whom are attorneys.

“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,” former Tribal Chairman Don Watahomigie said in a statement.

The measures are notable, said Soleil Dolce, vice president of the Arizona Equine Rescue Organization. But the reality is there continues to be horses removed from the Havasupai’s canyon reservation that show signs of severe neglect, which has been the situation for “as long as anyone can remember,” Dolce said.

“I feel frustrated. Even though I get they're taking measures and I know things take time it’s been two years and we’re seeing horses come out in just as bad of a condition as they ever have,” Dolce said. Her organization helps rehab animals removed from the reservation that are in an “extreme condition,” she said.

Most recently, it helped consult on two horses and one donkey that were removed from Supai during a Humane Society veterinary trip to the Havasupai village in March. One of the horses, a stallion with deep lacerations on its leg and open wounds across its back, was found wandering the canyon, said Kellye Pinkleton Arizona State Director with the Humane Society of the United States. The tribe is investigating that case and charges are expected to be filed soon, according to Abbie Fink, who works with a public relations firm hired by the tribe.

The other horse that was removed was severely malnourished and was euthanized shortly after it was brought out of the canyon, Dolce said. The donkey is being cared for by a nonprofit in the Phoenix area. The animals were either ownerless or owner-surrendered, Pinkleton said.

It was the Humane Society’s third trip to Supai over the past year. A team of 15 veterinarians, vet techs, farriers and equine dentists treated 52 horses, Pinkleton wrote in an email.

“Based on input from the veterinarians, the overall condition was good... the majority, beyond medications such as dewormer, needed hoof work and dental care,” Pinkleton wrote. “We did not notice any significant difference from prior trips but were encouraged that owners not previously seen brought their horses for care and patient visits.”

The organization had a shade structure built for animals kept in the animal control impound center in Supai, and is in discussions to potentially provide a shelter for pack animals near the top of the trail, Pinkleton wrote.

But the animals still lack a consistent water source at that trailhead at the top of the canyon. There is no water source there, so water has to be hauled. Wendy Mihalic, who visited Supai last weekend and hiked out of the canyon on Monday, said horses that had been hauling packs up the trail were tied up at the trailhead and left without shade or water for the three hours she was there.

With the arrival of the spring tourism season, Mihalic is one of an increasing number of hikers that have been calling Susan Ash expressing alarm about the horses’ condition. The founder of the Stop Animal ViolencE foundation, Ash has collected dozens of photos and videos from hikers showing Havasupai horses with ribs showing, sores and other injuries.

Water at Hilltop is one of the basic, essential needs of the animals that the tribe has neglected to address, Ash said. 

Another recent Havasupai visitor, Rob White, said he is filing a report with the Bureau of Indian Affairs after seeing a packer kick a horse that had gotten tripped up in the pack string and fallen, and then, still loaded with at least five packs, wasn’t getting up.

The packer gave the horse “one boot stomp to the nose,” White said. He made sure to emphasize that was an isolated incident and that horse as well as the other pack horses looked pretty healthy in general.

“The horse that collapsed on the trail was likely tired,” Fink said, adding that “at times even healthy horses will be inclined to lie down and roll around in the soft sand, and then have difficulty getting back up again if they are packed with a full load.”

An estimated 70 percent of tribal members own horses, according to Fink. In December 2016, she said there were 230 horses in the canyon and in a recent lawsuit filed by the tribe stated that 542 of its members live on the reservation in the village of Supai.

An Animal Control Office enforces animal control laws, which include both criminal and civil violations for animal cruelty, Fink said an email. Punishment upon conviction can include fines of up to $1,000, up to 30 days in jail, animal forfeiture and prohibition against owning animals in the future, she said.

It’s important to note that there are packers that do take good care of their horses and those are the ones people should be ensure they are supporting, Dolce said.

Tourists need to do more due diligence to make sure they aren’t supporting packing operations that don’t care for their horses properly, she said.

“Tourists have a lot of power in this situation if we can help them understand that,” she said.

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

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

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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