There is little difference between the definitions of feral and wild. The American Heritage Dictionary defines wild as “occurring or living in a natural state, not domesticated, not cultivated”. Feral is defined as “existing in a wild or untamed state, of or suggestive of a wild animal”. There is no mention of feral as meaning introduced by humans, as the Bureau of Land Management would have us believe. Those who buy the feral brand want to believe that these horses are just waiting for humans to come rescue them from the hardship of living on the range.
Yes, modern herds now roaming the public domain have roots in stock released to the range by humans, from the Spanish Conquistadors over half a century ago to Native Americans, cattledrovers, homesteaders, and ranchers up through the Great Depression. But, that doesn’t mean they are not wild. It doesn’t mean that those currently on the range are not living in a natural, untamed state. Ask anyone who has ever adopted a wild horse just how difficult it is to tame one. Ask observers at the current Calico Complex round-up just how easy it was for the black stallion who leapt to his freedom over a six-foot fence to remember his dutiful connection to human beings.
In his book, Into the Wind, scientist and wild horse expert, Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick writes:
[the feral definition] fails to project a picture of extremely wary animals, most of which view man with the same affection they feel for mountain lions or bears. The feral designation tends to create images of old barnyard plugs, standing on the edges of farms and ranches, waiting for handouts or simply waiting to die because of their former owners’ neglect. In the case of wild horses, nothing could be further from the truth (p. 25).
Last summer, I witnessed the Pryor Mountain herd on its home range, high in Montana’s Arrowhead Mountains, and was astonished at how different they are from, say, my neighbor’s horses. There was a liveliness and interaction between the horses and their surroundings I couldn’t explain but that I knew was completely different from that of domesticated horses in a private pasture. The wild ones are constantly moving, constantly touching each other, always playing, fighting, grooming. There was a dynamic within the herd that was missing from the other horses I’d seen in my lifetime, all of which were domesticated. That dynamic, I found out, is the difference between a wild horse and a domesticated horse. Ginger Kathrens, director of the Cloud Foundation and noted mustang advocate, says that’s because “wild horses are not dependent on humans for their environment”.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 mandates that these herds are “to be considered as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands”. In its original form, the Act sought to give exclusive protection to these animals largely because, as wild animals who lived on the range, they deserved it. Over the past 40 years, however, the spirit of the law has become mired in pointless arguments over whether they are feral, wild, or exotic. They are not game animals like elk, deer, antelope, or bighorn sheep. They’re not livestock, like the millions of permitted cattle that graze the public domain. Nor are they considered native wildlife, despite evidence to the contrary. They are not misfits and outlyers; they have adapted quite well to their surroundings and thrive to the point of contention in the rugged, hard-scrabble deserts and mountains of the American West.
In a recent LA Times op-ed (reprinted here in the Miami Herald), Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, enjoins us to “raise the stature of the wild horse”. For this to happen, we must move away from limiting definitions. From Western Colorado wants to know if there’s room in the public discourse for a discussion about a special designation for wild, free-roaming horses and burros.
Let us know what you think. This poll will remain open until February 1, 2010.