I-Team: Animal abuse haunts Havasu Canyon visitors

More than 20,000 visitors each year are drawn to a rugged and remote part of the Grand Canyon on land that belongs to the Havasupai tribe.

Hikers and campers generate millions of dollars per year in revenues for the tribe, literally on the backs of pack animals.

The tribe says it has worked to improve conditions for the hundreds of horses, burros and mules that carry heavy loads up and down the canyon each day. But life for the animals is still horrific.

"That horse was several hundred pounds underweight, but that wasn't the worst of it. His entire spine, the length of his spine was exposed bone, raw, bleeding, he had pusey abscesses everywhere," said Susan Ash, SAVE Foundation. "I can't even begin to imagine the level of pain that animal had been in."

A tortured little horse nicknamed Brownie proved to be the one that couldn't be ignored. For years, visitors to Havasu Canyon have been shocked and appalled by what's been done to pack animals who endure a daily 20-mile round trip in and out of the steep canyon, often grossly overloaded with the weight of people or baggage. 

A San Diego woman saw a mule beaten so severely its leg bone was exposed. It screamed in pain as it was forced to keep going. When she complained, the wrangler sarcastically told her he'd get the animal some aromatherapy.

Another hiker reported a horse that was driven so hard into a hill that it smashed its head and died. Because the animals are often tied together, a horse that falls or breaks a leg is often dragged by the others. A visitor from Arizona wrote in 2015 of several mules with open bleeding wounds and of seeing injured animals being discarded and left to die. Some are pushed off the rocks when they are too weak or injured to continue. It is common to see their bones and other bits scattered thru the canyon.

PHOTOS: Horses and burros at Havasu Canyon 
(Warning: Some images may be disturbing.)

"I have been told by people that they have followed trails of blood up and down that trail left by pack animals," Ash said.

She created an organization, SAVE, which has become a focal point in the efforts to help the pack animals. Her website collects and documents the horror stories. Visitors say they've filed complaints with the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and animal control agencies but they've been ignored, that is, until Brownie in 2016.

That's when Susan Ash coaxed federal agencies into taking action. they arrested a tribal wrangler named Leland Joe and seized four of his animals including Brownie. The suspect had a history of animal abuse that had been overlooked by the tribe but negative news coverage of his case pressured the Havasupai into suspending the commercial hiking program for almost two months.

The tribal council adopted changes in its agreements with the independent outfitters through which most visits are booked. only those wranglers approved by the tribe's animal control can be rented to the outfitters, plus there's a weight limit of 130 pounds of baggage per animal. Ash says the problem has not been solved.

"They just work them until they drop dead, then they go pick up some more horses from somewhere else," she said.

Two I-Team members made the hike into the canyon on a three-day trip in April and saw considerable evidence that things have not changed. The animals still carry heavy loads, including some of the wranglers themselves. Besides, there are no scales to verify the weight limits.

Animals are still driven at a fast pace, for no apparent reason. Water troughs along the way are empty and even though there is vegetation they could eat and water they could drink, they aren't allowed to stop.

Below, in Supai Village, our team found animals that showed open wounds, hide worn off, down to the bone, distorted overgrown hooves, broken bones and emaciated animals tethered to fences with no food in sight and horses that resorted to eating their own feces. Not seen was any animal control officer.

A BIA vehicle was parked above for two days without moving. When tourists call third party outfitters to book their trips, they are often assured that employees will make sure only healthy well-treated animals are used.  Susan Ash says it is a ruse. Visitors drop off their baggage in piles then hike down the trail with their guides.

"They don't watch any horses being packed. They don't see any of that. They're already on their way down the trail, period."

Many of the pack animals we saw in April appeared to be in good shape and well fed, though some of the horses are not much bigger than large dogs, and even healthy animals can be overwhelmed. 

Las Vegas veterinarian Dr. Morgan Daigle  hiked the canyon with a group of friends a few days ago and witnessed a healthy looking horse collapse under the weight of heavy ice chests. It took 10 minutes for the wrangler to untie all the ropes, remove the ice chests, and then.

"As soon as the horse stood up, they re-tied all the ice chests on him and sent him on back up the hill. It was heartbreaking," Daigle said.

The I-Team reached out to the tribe for comment but were told any statement must be approved by the entire tribal council.

In the past, the tribe has said that abused animals in Havasu Canyon are the exception, not the rule. 

There is a link on the SAVE website telling people how they can help the animals.