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Protect Wild Horses and Burros

by Katherine Noyes, Senior Editor
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Wild horses are a species originally native to North America, and have long been a symbol of freedom and the pioneering spirit of the American West. Unfortunately, wild horses and wild burros — which have also existed here for hundreds of years — compete for grazing land with cattle and other livestock, making them a point of contention between ranchers and animal advocates. Legislation protecting wild horses and burros has been weakened in recent years, despite the fact that their numbers have already been drastically reduced. By spending your vacation volunteering at a sanctuary for wild horses and burros, you can help ensure the survival of these magnificent animals.

During the 1800s, it is estimated that there were more than 2 million wild horses and burros roaming the American West. After years of widespread extermination efforts to make way for increasing numbers of livestock and cattle, public outcry over the slaughter of America's wild horses and burros eventually led to the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act in 1971, granting federal protection to the wild horses and burros of this country. At that time, their numbers had already been reduced to about 60,000, and public support for the act generated mail volume second only to that over the Vietnam War.

But after decades of successful protection, in 2004 a rider was included in the federal budget that allowed for the capture and slaughter of thousands more wild horses and burros. Today, the federal government estimates that there are only about 33,780 wild horses and 6,825 burros remaining on public lands. Each year many of these horses and burros are rounded up into crowded holding areas and put up for public adoption by the Bureau of Land Management. Under the current legislation, wild horses and burros that are more than 10 years old and that have failed to be adopted three times are sold for slaughter and eventual consumption overseas. The rest remain in holding areas indefinitely.

There has been much controversy over the federal government's handling of wild horses and burros, and the future of these animals remains uncertain. Sanctuaries and research efforts to save wild horses and burros need your help to make sure that these legendary animals continue to survive.

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Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get dirty; much of the work with wild horses and burros is hands-on.

  • The Wild Burro Rescue and Preservation Project is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and lifelong care of wild burros, which have been subject to lethal removal by shooting in the National Parks. Located in Olancha, California, the organization conducts live rescues of wild burros that would otherwise be eradicated, and cares for them at its sanctuary. Volunteers provide their own transportation in exchange for room and board.
  • The Wild Horse Sanctuary, located on 5,000 acres in Shingletown, California, provides a home to roughly 200 wild horses and wild burros that have been captured by government agencies off of public lands. The sanctuary also participates in research on birth-control techniques for wild horses that could help manage wild horse populations everywhere. Especially needed skills include carpentry and experience with horses and tack. A comprehensive list of tasks that can be done by volunteers is available along with a volunteer application form.  
  • Return to Freedom is a nonprofit organization that runs the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, providing a haven for nearly 200 wild horses and burros in Lompoc, California. The group also has efforts focusing on education and conservation. Volunteers are welcome for any length of time, and chores include carpentry, landscaping, ranch work and equine care.

America's wild horses and burros played a key role in building this nation, and have served mankind for hundreds of years. Now, more than ever, it's time we started returning the favor.

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