Susan Ash remembers the moment she became an animal-rights activist. It was sometime in the 1980s, and she had just moved to Texas and purchased her first horse. “I saw an article in the Dallas Morning News about the exploitation of animals,” she said last Wednesday, while drinking lukewarm decaf at a North Scottsdale bagel shop.
“That article changed everything. I became a vegetarian, and an activist, and I joined PETA. I marched in protests against the Ringling Bros. circus. I wrote letters about animal abuse at rodeos in Texas. That’s where it started.”
Ash figured she’d continue signing petitions and sending money and leading a life consistent with her beliefs about animal rights. “I never thought I’d be on the front lines,” she said, “fighting this hard for horses and mules and donkeys.”
The bagel shop was warm, but Ash didn’t seem to notice. She’d just come from Healing Hearts, an animal sanctuary in Scottsdale, where she told a FOX News reporter about Stop Animal Violence, the organization she launched in 2016. She told him about Save Havasupai Horses, her latest battle against horse abuse in the Grand Canyon.
Ash was tired, and still had a three-hour drive to her home in Flagstaff ahead of her. But she wanted to talk more about what was happening to horses in northern Arizona — those pressed into service as pack animals who accompany tourists along the Havasupai Trail. One of these young horses died from heat exhaustion in late May, and another collapsed a few weeks later. Ash said she’s been working closely with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which in turn has urged the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the situation in Havasupai.
“We’re asking people to make eyewitness reports of abuse,” Ash said, “and to take photos so we can put this out there to the public. Consequently, the tribe doesn’t like me very much. I’ve been banned from their land because I’m telling the truth.”
Ash said she’s tired of people claiming they can’t do much to help the horses. “They say, ‘It’s happening on Indian reservation land, it’s sovereign land, so there’s nothing we can do.’ I hear that all the time. I’ve stopped accepting that as an answer.”
The abuse has gone on for decades, Ash said, to countless pack horses and mules pressed into service along the Grand Canyon. It’s a chronic problem within the Supai nation, she believed. “It’s not just violence against animals. I’m focused on the animals because they’re the most helpless.”
Ash thought cultural attitudes about animals made it harder to educate about a horse’s rights and well-being. “If the children are educated to respect life and animals, that’s a start. But if the 8-year-olds come home from school and see their parents beat the crap out of a horse because they feel like it, it’s not going to change anything. You must start with the adults, where all that learned, angry behavior is already cemented, and force them to be compliant. That’s what I’m doing — forcing the Supai to see they have to treat their animals right.”
People like to remind Ash of the poverty of many Native reservations. “There’s poverty,” she agreed, “but they can afford to feed their animals. And poverty doesn’t explain purposeful brutality, like kicking a horse in the face when he has collapsed, or refusing him water, or forcing him to run up a mountain.”
Ash remembered a so-called pygmy horse named Clyde. “There’s no such thing as a pygmy horse,” she said, some anger in her voice. “Clyde was small because he was malnourished. And because he was overworked. The truth is that if you start working a horse before he’s done growing, and if you don’t feed him enough, he won’t grow.”
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Mules and donkeys are also abused along the trail, Ash explained. “I have photos of a mule who gave up on life, or maybe he got injured. He collapsed and they just left him there. He was being eaten alive by feral dogs.”
When she first launched SAVE, it was easier to get help. “I was working with the deputy director of the BIA in Washington, D.C.,” she recalled. “We were handing abusers a chance to avoid prosecution by just handing over ownership of the animal. Then I would take the horse to an animal sanctuary.”
When the deputy director retired, rescuing horses and mules became more difficult. Today, Ash relies on tourists to document and report any abuse they see. PETA continues to hound the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enact protection measures, and has collected more than 50,000 emails from members protesting the Supai horse abuse.
“In the meantime, these animals are being tortured,” Ash said, staring into an empty paper coffee cup. “Their lives are beyond horrible. The best day they ever have is the day they finally die.”