Is it a crime to ever sell a wild horse, taken from public land, for slaughter?
A federal law, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, seems to say that it is. However, some last-minute editing of a 1978 amendment to the law by former Sen. Paul Laxalt, R-Nev., has allowed the law’s language to be read in two different ways.
If you believe the Department of the Interior: It is not a crime to sell a horse for slaughter if the horse is first adopted and the adopter obtains an official title.
If you believe congressmen, federal judges and some prosecutors: It can be a crime to sell a wild horse for slaughter, whether adopted or titled or not.
So, what did Congress intend?
The Associated Press obtained every official record Congress has concerning the law, the transcripts of every congressional hearing and the personal papers and notes of the key legislators involved. Nowhere in those records is there any indication that any elected official ever wanted to let anyone sell wild horses to slaughter.
In fact, repeated statements to the contrary exist in the legislative history, as well as in court records.
“Our intent, and the intent of the entire Congress, was very clear and is stated in the first paragraph in the Act: ‘It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death,” former Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., said during hearings in 1974.
Hatfield warned against letting federal agencies put their own spin on the law. “Any changes must be made by Congress and not by agency administrators who may disagree with the law,” he said.
The law says the Secretary of the Interior must establish how many animals public lands can support, round up the excess animals and remove them. Only the government itself can have the animals “destroyed in the most humane and cost-efficient manner possible.”
In 1978, facing an overabundance of wild horses and pressure from cattle ranchers who lease federal land for grazing, Congress tried to make adoptions easier. The result was an amendment to let adopters obtain a title to an animal after caring for it one year.
The animal would lose its federal protection once a title is issued, Congress said, with one catch: “Provided, that no wild free-roaming horse or burro or its remains may be sold or transferred for consideration for processing into commercial products.”
That clause was left in the law by a congressional conference committee where Laxalt pressed his colleagues to change their draft amendment. Laxalt struck out a section explicitly spelling out it would be a crime for an adopter to sell an animal for slaughter. The clear wording had been proposed by the late Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash. While Laxalt struck out Jackson’s clear wording about criminal penalties, he left in Jackson’s wording that prohibits selling an adopted, titled animal for slaughter.
No transcript of the conference committee meeting was kept. Only notes remain.
Laxalt, now a lobbyist in Washington, would not comment. His former aide, Sam Ballenger, who worked on the law, said the compromise was intended to simplify the law’s language, but assure there would be no profit motive in the adoption of wild horses.
“I don’t think there was ever any notion that adopters would have the authority to kill them, whether they have title or not,” he said.
But did congressmen intend it to be a crime to sell an adopted, titled animal for slaughter? Ballenger said he could not say.
Since 1978, lawyers at the Department of the Interior have said that criminal sanctions in the wild horse law don’t apply to adopted, titled animals because once the animals are adopted and a title is issued, they are no longer “wild” and the law says its criminal penalties only apply to “wild” horses. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the $16 million-a-year program, has allowed thousands upon thousands of titled wild horses and burros to be slaughtered.
The Interior Department’s view of the law has not been tested in a criminal case. In 1985, an animal rights group sued the BLM in federal civil court in Nevada, seeking an order to stop the agency from allowing the adoption of wild horses for slaughter. In 1987, a judge ordered the agency to not issue a title if the BLM knows the adopter intends to sell the animals for slaughter.
The BLM appealed, but lost.
The BLM’s “disregard for the announced future intentions of adopters undercuts Congress’ desire to ensure humane treatment for wild horses and burros,” U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Choy wrote.
“In fact, it renders the adoption process a farce, for the one-year requirement of humane treatment and care serves no purpose if on the day the one-year period expires, the adopters can proceed to the slaughterhouse.”
In Del Rio, Texas, last year, a grand jury preparing to indict BLM officials was shut down partly because government lawyers in Washington, D.C., disagreed with a local prosecutor’s view that the law makes slaughter a crime.
In an angry memo, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Alia Ludlum responded: “I believe that Congress intended that these horses not end up at a processing plant even after title passed to the adopters.”
Some members of Congress are considering hearings this spring. “I believe the necessary requirements for such an inquiry have been met and that the gravity of the situation merits swift and thorough attention,” said Rep. Steve Schiff, R-N.M.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CLEAR AS KAFKA Since 1978, lawyers at the Department of the Interior have said that criminal sanctions in the wild horse law don’t apply to adopted, titled animals because once the animals are adopted and a title is issued, they are no longer “wild” and the law says criminal penalties only apply to “wild” horses.