Madeleine Pickens, the wife of Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, made news this week with the announcement that she was willing to purchase and create a million-acre refuge for unadoptable wild horses, which otherwise would be euthanized by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM says the euthanasia measure is necessary to control the herds and protect the Western range.
It’s estimated that 33,000 wild horses and burros currently roam the open range in 10 Western states; BLM, which wants that population to be about 27,000, says it now has about the same number of animals in holding facilities as on the range. And the cost of maintaining these "excess" horses off the range is simply overwhelming the agency’s budget and options.
Pickens says the animals brought to her refuge would be sterilized, and she also would take any extra horses the BLM takes out of the wild each year. BLM spokesman Tom Gorey says the agency welcomes the offer, according the the Associated Press.
Like many people, I love the mystique surrounding wild horses. At the same time, I understand these animals are only wild in the sense that, at some point, they broke their tie to man for their day-to-day existence.
Those who know me know I have a passion for horses, but the wild-horse issue is illustrative of a lot of issues we face today. In the big scope of things, it’s not a big problem. But it’s an issue that has always been more about emotion than science, captivating the masses and building large constituencies who care deeply about the issue.
Millions have been spent and lots of legislation written on this issue. It’s the same emotion that led to the ban on horse slaughter. The lesson is that when the majority of the people have decided that something is worth protecting, then it will be protected at nearly any cost.
We’re seeing similar dynamics relative to animal welfare and the environment; if something is determined to need protection, the cost is immaterial. Thus, science shrinks as a factor in determining how these issues are dealt with; rather, political constituencies become the driver, and management of problems are removed from academic discussion to the court of public opinion.
Inevitably, what the environment or animals need protection from is either manmade or man himself.
Just try to explain to someone from Philadelphia that wild horses are no more "wild" than a pack of wild dogs, and you will be quickly labeled as some sort of evil barbarian. The response will be similar if you argue that some forms of environmental reforms are not needed or even counterproductive.
Sadly, these aren’t arguments that can be waged or won on the basis of facts, science or logic. It’s about philosophy and core beliefs, the myth and the story, and what people will feel good about doing. Perhaps most importantly, these are decisions that people don’t feel will affect their everyday life; so, they take the side that makes them feel the most altruistic.
If we can learn how to interject science and common sense into the wild-horse debate, I believe we could do the same for environmental or animal-welfare issues. I don’t know if it’s possible but our failure or success will be determined by how well we can create a story and solution that makes the average citizen feel they are doing the right thing for the greater common good.