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Debate goes on: Protect, ignore or eat wild horses?

Consider the plight of the West’s wild horses long enough, and at some point you’ll probably find yourself asking the question: Should the animals be protected, left to roam without rules, or removed from the range?

It’s a question Chuck Klosterman entertained in his thought-provoking The Ethicist column in the latest edition of The New York Times magazine. “Despite their romantic appeal, horses are an invasive species on this continent with few natural predators,” reader T.G. of New York wrote to Klosterman. “… Advocates for wild horses like to compare the ecological impact of horses with that of cattle, but that’s sort of like saying we should protect the Asian long-horned beetle because it kills fewer trees than lumber mills. Is it unethical to protect wild horses?”

The Asian long-horned beetle? Ouch.

It’s a question advocates on both sides of the mustang debate stopped asking long ago. They know the answer.

Of course they should be protected, their advocates argue. They have at least as much right to exist as the cattle that graze on federal land. Some horse huggers want to see them in sanctuaries. Others believe adoption is a viable option. Still others imagine rounding them up and issuing forms of birth control.

Ranchers, meanwhile, contend the horse lovers are the cruel ones. The animals overgraze, overbreed and inbreed. They destroy delicate grassland and ruin water sources. Some see horse slaughter as a reasonable and more humane alternative to allowing the beasts to starve during harsh winters or die of thirst during summer drought.

The federal government has spent millions trying to manage the animals without a helluva lot of success. Klosterman offered his considered view:

“Horses alter the ecological landscape, but we’d be altering the landscape by eliminating the horses.

“If your point is that there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the human relationship with horses, I can’t disagree. There are certain animals humans tend to care about more than others, and it can seem arbitrary. If your thoughts on animal rights exist at one of the philosophical poles — if you believe no animal should ever be killed, or if you believe any animal can be killed for any reason — this question is easy. But most people exist somewhere in the middle, holding views that don’t always make rational sense.”

Horses aren’t the only animals being taken from wild lands. Klosterman also noted that pythons are being removed from Florida marshes. He admits he has less trouble with the idea of the snakes being killed than the extermination of wild horses, and he allows that ethics compels “people to consider things that might contradict their feelings.”

For some, it comes back to manners, morals, and customs. In general, Americans don’t eat horses. They ride them. Unless you’re a rodeo cowboy, you probably don’t ride bovine creatures. But chances are good you have no problem barbecuing them.

Is one really more sacred than the other, or is it just a matter of, ahem, personal taste?

We’re not taking about eating horses. We’re weighing whether it’s ethical to place them in a special category.

“I would ultimately say this: It’s unethical to protect wild horses (which are currently not categorized as endangered) if our only reasoning is that we happen to like horses and believe they deserve preferential treatment,” Klosterman wrote. “Our policy and criteria for horse populations should be the same as our policy for pronghorns or coyotes or any other mammal. But none of these species should be radically culled unless they pose a direct threat to human well-being, which does not appear to be the case. Now, if that sounds as if I’m ‘privileging’ human life over nonhuman life, it’s because I am. But that doesn’t mean we can treat animals as bloodless statistical populations that we control at our convenience.”

Does this mean it’s OK to hunt them?

Somehow, I don’t think this ends the great wild horse debate.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at 702-383-0295 or at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com.