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Supai horse owner charged with felony for animal cruelty

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After a multi-week investigation, FBI agents on Thursday arrested a member of the Havasupai Tribe on charges of cruel neglect, mistreatment and failure to provide necessary medical attention to one of his horses in the village of Supai in Grand Canyon.

Leland Joe, 34, had his initial appearance Friday in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff. He is charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors related to treatment of the horse. Because of how animal cruelty is treated on tribal land, the charges are state violations that have been assimilated under federal law.

Joe was arrested following a joint investigation by the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Four horses, including the horse named in the federal charges, were taken into evidence.

It was repeated observations of the poor condition of Joe’s horses by visitors and veterinarians, as well as complaints mounted by a citizens group, that spurred the federal investigation into Joe’s horses, the affidavit said.

The document described one of Joe’s horses as thin, malnourished and with visible open and bleeding sores or wounds along the length of its spine. The affidavit states the animal had “suffered cruel mistreatment, in that it has been inflicted with unnecessary serious physical injury and cruel neglect…” It was suffering from serious, and likely life-threatening, medical conditions, the document said. Other horses belonging to Joe were in a similar state, it said.

Joe will be held in the Coconino County Jail until a detention hearing on Tuesday.

The case is believed to be the only instance of federal agencies pursuing an animal cruelty case on tribal land, according to Patrick Schneider, assistant U.S. attorney and tribal liaison U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona. He said in researching the issue his office had not found a similar action by any federal agency anywhere in the country.

Although now in the spotlight of the federal legal system, the treatment of horses and mules used for packing gear and other items to and from the village of Supai has for years been a topic of concern among visitors as well as veterinarians and nonprofit organizations working to improve conditions for the animals. They emphasize that horses like Joe’s that suffer serious mistreatment and abuse, while concerning, are an extreme example that doesn’t represent the condition of most horses used by tribal members.

For more on the story, see Sunday’s Arizona Daily Sun.

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or


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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