Portland, OR–Citing violations of the US Constitution and three federal laws, an alliance of wild horse protection and animal welfare advocates filed a lawsuit today in the US District Court in Portland against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The groups seek to enjoin the federal agency from proceeding with controversial and dangerous surgical experiments to remove the ovaries of wild mares at the BLM’s Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon.
The complaint was filed by Nick Lawton of the public interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein and Eubanks LLP on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI); The Cloud Foundation (TCF) and its executive director Ginger Kathrens, who is also the Humane Advocate on the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board; the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC); and wildlife photographer Carol Walker, who is also a director of field documentation for the Wild Horse Freedom Federation.
The experiments involve performing an outdated surgical procedure called ovariectomy via colpotomy. This is a blind surgery in which a veterinarian inserts his arm into a mares’ abdominal cavity through an incision in the vaginal wall, manually locates the ovaries, then twists, severs and removes them using a rod-like tool with a chain on the end. The National Academy of Sciences explicitly called the procedure “inadvisable” due to health risks in its comprehensive report on wild horse management.
The lawsuit alleges that such experiments are unscientific, inhumane and dangerous, and will result in pain, suffering and potentially life-threatening complications for wild mares in violation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. The groups also argue that the BLM’s proposal fails to adequately consider more humane fertility control options, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
The suit further asserts that the BLM’s refusal to allow meaningful public observation and video recording of the experiments to improve public awareness of how the BLM is treating these federally protected wild horses violates the groups’ First Amendment rights. Currently, the BLM is providing limited observation through the doorway of a room adjacent to the surgical suite on a first-come, first-served basis with no independent veterinary observation provided.
“To date, the BLM has refused to allow a meaningful opportunity for media or the public to observe and record these procedures,” said Nick Lawton of Meyer, Glitzenstein and Eubanks. “The BLM’s refusal to allow meaningful access to observe and record these experiments thwarts the important newsgathering objectives that Plaintiffs aim to achieve by observing and documenting the BLM’s treatment of wild horses, and thus violates Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.”
This marks the BLM’s second attempt to conduct research on the surgical removal of the ovaries of wild mares. In 2016, AWHC and TCF sued to uphold their First Amendment right to observe the experiments. At the time, one of the BLM’s major objectives was to determine the “social acceptability” of the procedure. The BLM subsequently canceled the experiments.
In its renewed attempt to conduct the research this year, the BLM dropped its social acceptability objective to avoid having to offer meaningful observation.
The BLM also announced that it would be conducting the experiments in partnership with Colorado State University (CSU). The university was intended to provide expertise in monitoring and assessing the welfare impacts of the surgeries on the wild mares. However, in August, CSU withdrew from the project following public backlash. Rather than find another academic institution, the BLM dropped any scientific observation of animal welfare from its study design. Then, earlier this month, the BLM announced that it was moving forward with the spay feasibility study.
As soon as next month, the BLM plans to start rounding up 100 percent of the wild horses in the Warm Springs Herd Management Area in southeastern Oregon. An estimated 694 adult horses and 158 foals will be permanently removed and 100 mares will be surgically sterilized. The experiments carry a risk of mortality from bleeding, infection and evisceration (fatal protrusion of bowel through the surgical incision) and will subject pregnant mares to risk of miscarriage and associated complications.
“The BLM’s latest reckless approach to wild horse management not only endangers the lives of animals that would be subjected to a risky surgical procedure, but it also presents serious legal problems,” said Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., AWI’s equine program manager. “The American public has a right to know what is happening to federally protected wild horses. This is especially important since the BLM’s stated experimental goal is to quantify how many injuries and deaths will result from performing ovariectomies on wild mares in nonsterile conditions.”
Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere — in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information, visit www.awionline.org.
The American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) is a national wild horse advocacy organization whose grassroots mission is endorsed by a coalition of more than 60 horse advocacy, public interest, and conservation organizations. AWHC is dedicated to preserving the American wild horse in viable, free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage.
The Cloud Foundation (TCF) is a Colorado 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, that grew out of Executive Director Ginger Kathrens' knowledge and fear for wild horses in the West. TCF works to educate the public about the natural free-roaming behavior and social structure of wild horses and the threats to wild horse and burro society, to encourage the public to speak out for their protection on their home ranges, and to support only humane management measures. Kathrens serves as the Humane Advisor on BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.