Horse advocates continue to raise questions and concerns about whether removing horses from Fort Polk is necessary, and about how it will be done
One such group of advocates is the Pegasus Equine Guardian Association (PEGA). Its vice president, Pinckney Wood, said that "the goals of Pegasus are to preserve the wild horses that range on Fort Polk lands, and to prevent any of the horses from ending-up in the 'slaughter pipeline.' We have sought to do [this], while at the same time respecting the mission of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center."
Some of PEGA's ideas to meet this goal include using herd management techniques to keep horses away from training areas, and fertility control methods to reduce the population.
In response to PEGA's questions surrounding the number of horses on the Army base, which they think seems drastically inflated, Troy Darr, Public Affairs Officer on Fort Polk, said, "last year the estimate was 700 horses, so we assume it is a slightly higher number this year." He pointed out that there had been a scientist on staff to perform the task of estimating how many horses are actually living on the land at Fort Polk. This type of assessment generally involves counting a measured part of the population, and then extrapolating the approximation of the entire population from that count.
PEGA has suggested that "ideally there would be a way to find space for the horses within the 40,000 acres that the Army does not use for training." This solution includes using pens and fencing to keep horses away from training areas.
Of this, Colonel David "Gregg" Athey, Garrison Commander, said, "the land that we train on is very large; it's very vast." He pointed out that Fort Polk "just went through land purchase for 45,000 acres. “This was done to expand our training area," he said, "because we have a deficit. The brigade combat teams we train are much larger than they used to be, therefore they require much more land. We also have our own brigade here and we have the responsibility to provide them with the training they require to maintain their readiness."
Creating a horse sanctuary "would be taking a huge step backwards by giving up property that we just got, as authorized by Congress. It would be cost prohibitive," stated the Garrison Commander.
PEGA has raised questions about sterilization of hours in the wild herd and suggested the horses could be relocated within the Kisatchie National Forest.
When asked about herd management via fertility control, referred to as "sterilization" in the PEGA blog, Col. Athey explained that the Army has partnered with the LSU Agriculture Department to assist in these endeavors and assure that they are taking proper care of the horses while administering a form of contraception called porcine zona pellucida, commonly known as PZP.
The American Wild Horse Preservation has pointed out that the FDA, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and animal care committees all carefully review protocols for PZP use, and more than 20 years of data, carried out under these sets of rules, clearly show that wild horses are neither injured by the drug, nor do aberrational behaviors occur as a consequence of its application.
HSUS assures that the vaccine is used only to slow reproduction and may not be used for the extermination of entire herds. PZP is designed to bring about short-term infertility and is reversible, if not used beyond five consecutive years.
“The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sees this type of fertility control as a way to reduce horse removals, to place fewer horses in short- and long-term holding facilities, and to achieve budgetary savings," said Don Glenn, Acting Group Manager of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, Washington, D.C.
During the past two to three months LSU started utilizing PZP fertility control treatments on the Polk horses by "darting the females." Athey explained that "the initial stage of this process was LSU coming to study the herds and identify behaviors. They advised us the best way to go forward is to treat the mares because if you sterilize the stallions it breaks down the social networks within the herds." He said this is the first part of the implementation of the Course of Action (#7) selected by Brig. General Gary Brito to eliminate the horses from the post.
If horses must be removed in order to achieve the Army's primary mission of providing superior training at Fort Polk, PEGA would like to ensure that the horses will be treated humanely and will be placed into caring hands, as opposed to being sold for slaughter, or other such inhumane treatment.
The horse advocates pointed to an article by Jerry Finch, a senior correspondent for Habitat for Horses, where he writes that horse slaughter schemes are often covered by a "set of fronts and organizations that make a monetary profit out of defending the existence of horse slaughtering, either directly or indirectly. It's not about equine welfare, humanity, professionalism, or reliability."
The worry is that a non-profit may be a front for someone who feigns love of horses, but rather intends to sell them to slaughter for personal, monetary, gain.
The Garrison Commander said "this month we will be bating these animals into pens and that will start the full cycle." This part of the process brings up PEGA's interest in wanting to know what will happen next for these horses.
The Army's chosen course of action determines that "the horses will be adopted, given away, sold, and relocated." Specifically, in partnership with LSU, 25-35 horses at a time will be corralled into approximately two-acre lots. They will then be offered to 501(c)3, non-profit organizations, who will take possession of the horses and administer an adoption program for private individuals.
One such group which has come forward to take some or all of the horses, and visited Fort Polk last Friday, is the Humane Society of North Texas (HSNT), the largest and longest-standing non-profit animal rescue and adoption organization in North Texas.
It serves over 25,000 animals annually through its various programs. HSNT's mission, according to its website, is to “act as an advocate on behalf of all animals and ensure their legal, moral, and ethical consideration and protection."
Col. Athey said HSNT "thinks they may be able to accommodate all of the horses and they will identify the right families to take them. That is what they do, and this is just a bigger project for them."
PEGA has expressed concern regarding the intentions, and documented history, of inhumane behaviors of some organizations who have also expressed interest in participating in the process of removing horses from Fort Polk. Athey said, "if there is significant credible evidence supporting this kind of thing, we are going to do what's right." He said, if there is evidence, such as court documents, of potentially questionable treatment of horses by a non-profit group, "we will present it to the Commanding General who will make the decision."
From the point when the nonprofits take over, the Garrison Commander stated, "we count on these organizations to do the vetting" of individuals who intend to adopt horses.
Troy Darr said that HSNT "adopted out 700 horses last year and 600 horses the first half of this year." Fort Polk is going to try to make available 200-250 horses per year.
Any horses which may remain will be offered to the general public on a first-come, first-serve basis. PEGA wants to ensure that whomever the horses end up with have good intentions for them, and that it can be guaranteed they will not be sold for slaughter or treated inhumanely in any way.
Darr explained that these individual citizens, who may or may not have an opportunity to take horses from Fort Polk, depending on how the process evolves with the non-profits, "are not vetted. They are Americans who will have all the responsibilities and advantages of owning a horse. It's not within our purview to supervise horses owned by the American people. We don't have the legal authority to tell somebody what they can do with the horse. If someone breaks the law, once they've got the horse, that's up to the sheriff, or the state police, or the FBI, and horse advocates" at that point.
PEGA also raised questions about whether it is ethical to remove "wild" horses from this land. Amy Hanchey, PEGA President said, "wild or not, we are humans and we are expected to be humane. The Army has a responsibility to the surrounding community and other people around the country." She continued, "human life is paramount, but the horses also have a right to be treated well."
Wood presented a 2004 joint resolution of the Louisiana House and Senate. Of this he said, "resolutions don't have the weight of law. However they express the will of the Legislature, and as such, they ought to be taken seriously." He continued, "it addressed the horse situation at Fort Polk, and was authored by State Representative Warren Triche during the 2004 Regular session of the Louisiana Legislature."
To summarize, the joint resolution states that "there are hundreds of unclaimed, unbranded horses living in free-roaming bands on the pubic lands of...Fort Polk Military Reservation." It continues, saying "the U.S. Army has effectively managed these wild animals for decades and has and should retain the authority to continue to do so in a manner that is best for the well-being of the animals."
One portion of the joint resolution mentions that the Environmental Assessment (EA) developed by the Army must regard "the wild horses that roam freely on the lands in Kisatchie National Forest used by the Army as training areas;” Col. Athey said Fort Polk does not own or train on National Forest land.
There has been no DNA testing done on these particular horses on Fort Polk, but Col. Athey said "we rely on what the courts have already determined," and that is "these are not protected animals. These are feral animals and they have been abandoned," which is why they have been deemed "trespass" horses.
Horses which are qualified and determined to be labelled as "trespass," are not protected under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
Colonel Athey said the non-profits, mainly the Humane Society of North Texas, will begin claiming horses at the end of this month. He stated that they "are doing this in manageable numbers." It is expected that this process will take about two to three years, within continuous reassessment of the process, with adjustments made as needed.
Athey reiterated that "removing the horses from Fort Polk is for the safety of the soldiers and horses, the maintenance of the integrity of the JRTC program, and the prevention of damage to equipment."
PEGA and other horse advocate groups maintain an important role in this process, ensuring that the horses have advocates who will speak for them and work to ensure that they are treated humanely in any and all contexts.