SUPAI VILLAGE, Ariz. – A hike down to the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Trail in early May turned into a nightmare for a Northern Arizona family after they witnessed what they called abuse of a horse.
Ashlynn Buschschulte, her sister, mom and grandma, Cindi Hall, said they were traumatized by what they saw.
“He was punching him and hitting him with the rope trying to get him to move and the horse was trying to back away. He did try to rear up so the guy yanked on him really hard and that’s when the horse collapsed and his legs were straight out. He was breathing really hard,” Buschschulte said.
Malnourished, overworked and even beaten -- disturbing reports of horses abused while taking tourists into the Grand Canyon aren’t new to 12 News. For years, we’ve received calls, emails and have seen posts on social media about what many visitors said has been happening on the way to Havasupai Falls at the hands of wranglers.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) encouraged eyewitnesses of abuse to call incidents in to 928-769-2220, saying reporting quickly was important and that it was doing what it could with limited resources, but Hall said she has tried that and it wasn’t that easy.
“The problem there is -- and what most organizations have had a problem with -- is working with the BIA to begin with because of their own tribal laws,” Hall said.
Hall said her family chose to document what they saw instead of reporting it because they were afraid action wouldn’t be taken and called recent actions only "Band-Aids."
“I would like to see them prosecuted,” Hall said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has only done this once, when a tribal member was convicted in 2016 of animal abuse.
12 News asked the BIA and Havasupai Tribe for on-camera interviews, but they were only available to answer our questions via email.
In an email to 12 News, The Bureau of Indian Affairs answered the following questions:
Q: I want to know how long it normally takes the BIA to investigate reports of abuse against horses in Havasupai?
A: This is dependent upon several factors which starts with the report being received by OJS. If the person making the report is an eyewitness and the abuse is reported soon after the witnessing then the likelihood of a successful investigation being conducted is much higher. We encourage anyone who witnesses any animal abuse to immediately report the abuse our to 24-hr dispatch at (928) 769-2220. Dependent upon the complexity of the investigation, how recent the abuse allegation is, availability of eyewitnesses and evidence to document along with the identification of suspects, the investigations can be concluded in a matter of days to a matter of months.
Q: Are there any challenges in moving forward with these investigations and in enforcing laws dealing with horses?
A: The biggest challenge is the delayed reporting which many times results in a lack of evidence being available to document. Again we encourage anyone who witnesses any animal abuse to immediately report the abuse to our 24-hr dispatch at (928) 769-2220. Recently several social media sites have been listing e-mail addresses and phone numbers to report abuse. Reporting to the incorrect BIA office causes significant delays in getting the critical information into the hands of the investigator at Havasupai. To bypass these delays we strongly recommend witnesses make their report to the 24-hr dispatch number.
Another challenging aspect of investigating animal abuse, which is compounded by the location of the Havasupai tribe, is seizure of the animal. Seizing an animal is challenging due to a lack of resources to house and care for the animal. The OJS has reached out to other partners, such as the Humane Society, to help render assistance to help ensure the animals are provided the care they need. Just recently our office reported the US Humane Society was in Havasupai where they treated approximately 70 horses, all of which were found to be in decent condition, only one having a minor issue. The examinations included checking their teeth, shaving their hooves and passing out food and supplies.
Q: I had asked how many reports your agency received over the last year and last three years.
A: Over the past three years we have documented 42 animal related incidents at Havasupai with over half (27) of those documented over the past 12 months. These are not all horse related and 30 of the 42 have been marked as closed. We have assigned a Special Agent to focus specifically on those complaints regarding horse abuse.
Q: Finally, what is the agency doing to prevent abuse of horses?
A: The agency has assigned a federal criminal investigator to work directly with the United States Attorney's Office and federal uniformed police officers stationed in Havasupai. This assignment includes a weekly update call with the agency's district office and headquarters along with frequent meetings with tribal officials. The agency has made it a priority to immediately follow up on any allegation of animal abuse and work alongside the tribe's Animal Control Officer.
The Havasupai Tribe gave 12 News the following answers in an email:
Q: Last year, a member of the Supai Tribe, Leland Joe, was convicted as a result of abuse and mistreatment of his horses. We have received pictures, messages and calls, over several years, and quite a few recently, about abuse of horses in Supai; oftentimes it’s about them being malnourished, overworked and not receiving water or medical care. I’d like to know whether the tribe is working to keep this from happening?
A: Horses are a part of the lives of the Havasupai people and aide in providing the day-to-day necessities of living in the Havasupai Canyon. The health of these animals is important to us and we have policies in place for the protection of such animals. The Tribe has an Animal Control Office which was established years ago to enforce the animal control laws of the Tribe. The office is managed by the Animal Control Officer who generally has one or two assistants. Their job is to enforce the Animal Control laws of the Tribe and they do this for horses by inspecting all of the horses in Supai on a regular basis. They work to educate horse owners on the proper care and feeding of the horses and assist with veterinarian care when needed. The Animal Control Officers in Supai regularly visit horse owners and take note of all horses and their health conditions. This is a time-consuming but necessary effort to ensure that these horses are in the best possible health. The Animal Control Office adopted a horse body scoring system developed by ADM Alliance Nutrition Inc. of Illinois, which our animal control officers use to score the horses in Supai. Routinely the Animal Control Officers observe, share insights and make recommendations to the horse owners regarding the condition of their horses. In general, our tribal members comply with the recommendations provided by our officers.
Q: What are you doing to educate wranglers and horse owners about the proper care of these animals? I understand it’s a lucrative business for the tribe, but …
A: The Animal Control Officers in Supai regularly visit horse owners and take note of all horses and their health conditions. They work to educate horse owners on the proper care and feeding of the horses and assist with veterinarian care when needed. Earlier this month a mission trip coordinated by the Humane Society of the United States were in Supai. Equine vets provided not only medical and dental care, but offered educational materials to the horse owners.
Q: Are leaders working to make it humane for these animals which are a major part of the tribe’s tourism dollars and its members’ livelihoods?
A: Several of the Havasupai tribal enterprises utilize pack horses to transport goods into and out of the Havasupai Canyon. All owners who provide horses for this purpose must ensure that their horses meet the standards set by our Animal Control Office.
The Animal Control Office adopted a horse body scoring system developed by ADM Alliance Nutrition Inc. of Illinois, which our animal control officers use to score the horses in Supai. Routinely the Animal Control Officers observe, share insights and make recommendations to the horse owners regarding the condition of their horses. If these horses do not meet these standards, they do not pack on behalf any tribal entity.
Successful packers have enough horses to rotate them, giving them much-needed time to rest and feed. Working animals are by nature lean and healthy, they are not pets or companions. They have a specific job to do and with adherence to our scoring system, these animals live a healthy and productive life.
There are several private companies that operate tours in the Canyon. Oftentimes, these companies will contract privately with a member of the Havasupai Tribe to hire their horses for packing purposes. The Tribe is not involved in these transactions. Other federal agencies, such as the BIA and the Post Office, also utilize horses
The Tribe does require them to get a license and they must follow the licensing rules. However, the Havasupai Tribe does not control the actions of these private companies or federal agencies.
Q: Does the tribe have any laws in place to protect these animals from this abuse, if so, what are they? If not, is there any work underway to put some in place?
A: The Animal Control Office adopted a horse body scoring system developed by ADM Alliance Nutrition Inc. of Illinois, which our animal control officers use to score the horses in Supai. Routinely the Animal Control Officers observe, share insights and make recommendations to the horse owners regarding the condition of their horses. If these horses do not meet these standards, they do not pack on behalf any tribal entity.
Q: The Havasupai Tribe has implemented new regulations that require outfitters to be licensed. To receive a license outfitters agree to comply with all rules and regulations established by the Havasupai Tribe related to outfitters providing guide services within the Havasupai Reservation. These rules and regulations include using only animals that have been permitted for packing purposes by the Havasupai Animal Control Office.
A: As of September 2016, each Packer packing for the Tribe or an Outfitter is required to have a Permit issued by the Tribal Animal Control Office. Each Permit is valid for a limited time (60 days) from the issued date. Each Packer should have a copy of the Permit showing approval to pack. Included on the Permit issued to packers are descriptions of horses that cannot be used on the Reservation as a source of transportation.
The Tribe does have an animal control ordinance that prohibits animal abuse. The animal control ordinance is a part of the Tribe’s law and order code.
Q: Finally, are there any consequences from the tribe for members who abuse horses?
A: If anyone is concerned about the health and well-being of an animal they should report it to the Animal Control Office. The officer will investigate the complaint and if necessary, will involve law enforcement. There have been some instances where the horses’ health and well-being were compromised. And when this occurs, the animal control office will take possession of the horse and it will come under the ACO’s care. This is, however, not representative of the general horse population in Supai.