In anticipation for the next roundup of the famed Onaqui wild horses later this month, animal rights advocates, lobbyists and actress Katherine Heigl met on the south steps of the Utah Capitol to protest the planned horse gather of Utah’s most famous herd.
“Help us. Help us,” Heigl pleaded to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland in her speech to the protesters. “Help us, President Biden. And please, the American public, call your representatives, badger them, harass them. Make your voices heard because it’s our voices that are necessary right now to protect the voiceless.”
Heigl, who lives in Utah, says the issue is personal to her, and that the inhumanity of the helicopter roundups disturbs her. The actress has been involved in the protection of the Onaqui wild horses since May, when she publicly called for the Bureau of Land Management to leave the horses on the land and manage their population numbers using birth control.
“When I became aware of this when I was included in this conversation, I just thought ‘this can’t happen in this sacred place,’” said Heigl. “This place I’ve just found so much peace in, and such beauty and tranquility, this place that I feel safe raising my children in. We cannot be a part of something like this.”
Speakers at the rally emphasized the danger and risk that helicopter roundups pose to the wild horses.
“They are flight animals,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a lobbyist organization that advocates for animals in Washington, D.C. “You take a helicopter across the range to chase wild horses, and they’re breaking legs. Many of them have been mid-birth, and they’re having a foal being chased by a helicopter. How terrible is that? We wanted to see change with this new administration. Mr. President, it’s time to make change.”
Protesters arrived with homemade signs proclaiming “Stop the Roundup!” and “Save Our Onaqui Horses!” Friday morning. The protest grew to about 50 people before lobbyists and activists began speaking.
The rally started on the steps of the Capitol but moved to the rangeland itself around 11:30 a.m. Irby urged advocates to “light up the White House switchboard” by calling the White House voicemail. He hopes the effort will encourage Biden to sign an executive order to stop the roundup.
Wild horse advocates say this roundup could send 80% of Onaqui wild horses in the Great Basin to an uncertain future, and that the practice of herding animals by helicopter is cruel and inhumane.
“They’re more easily scared than a cow or sheep or pig would be,” said Irby. “It would be like taking a helicopter and chasing a 4-year-old child. That’s the equivalent. It’s just absurd that this continues.”
Advocates argue that the government has more humane options in the current effort to remove wild horses to reduce their population in the West. This effort aims to improve rangeland conditions for public land. The government would have to cull nearly three-quarters of the current population of wild horses in the West to meet this goal, while still battling a 20% annual population growth.
Emily Ahyou traveled to the protest with her sister and two nephews. The group had stayed up until 2 a.m. the previous night making signs displaying running wild horses and urging the cease of the helicopter roundups before arriving at the protest promptly at 9 a.m.
“People don’t realize these horses have family bonds,” said Ahyou. “The method of rounding them up is incredibly inhumane. It just shouldn’t happen. There’s birth control out there and different methods to manage them.”
The BLM does administer fertility control, but says that it is impractical in remote areas. The most recent Oocyte Growth Factor vaccine can be administered to a captured wild mare through a single dose and may prevent pregnancy for up to three years or longer. The problem, says the BLM, is capturing the horse in the first place.
Irby ended his speech by urging people to call their representatives in Congress about passing the Carter-Fitzpatrick horse slaughter ban amendment to the INVEST in America Act. The amendment permanently bans the transport of horses bound for slaughter in other countries. Heigl also advocated for this amendment on Twitter.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly quoted Marty Irby as saying that horses were “having a fall” instead of “having a foal.”