Video: Wild horses at risk

By Chip Reid Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/30/2004 7:38:20 PM ET 2004-12-31T00:38:20

They are "living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West." That's what Congress called wild horses three decades ago when it ended their widespread slaughter and gave them federal protection.

"They're so majestic," says Laurie Howard of the National Wild Horse Association. "They're free. You go out and see them running in the wild. It takes your breath away."

But, in a surprise move, Congress recently changed the law —with no hearings and no debate.

Wild horse advocates say the new law draws a path straight back to the slaughterhouse.

"You're talking thousands — 7-, 8-, 9,000 horses could be gone within a year," says Howard.

The meat will likely be served in restaurants in France, Belgium and Japan, where horse is a delicacy.

There are about 37,000 wild horses in the American West, more than half of them in Nevada.  The federal government says that is simply too many—more than the land can support. That land also supports millions of cattle and competition for scarce food and water can lead to starvation.

So every year the federal government rounds up thousands of horses and puts many up for adoption. The rest are sent to sanctuaries to live out their days. Now those horses could be first in line for the slaughterhouse.

The chief sponsor of the new law insists the number of horses killed for food will be small.

"I think there will be people that will actually buy these horses and take them home," says Sen. Burns. "There's no caveats on how they take care of them, but they will take care of them and some of them will find very useful lives."

All wild horses over 10 years old will be eligible for slaughter. They're consider untrainable.

But tell that to Jesse Paxton, who's been working with older wild horses for years. He says virtually all of them can be trained.

"Just be fair with them and you've got a friend for life," says Paxton.

Wild horse activists say the long-term solution includes better birth control and adoption programs. But first they're launching a campaign to ban the slaughter of this symbol of American freedom.

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