LAS VEGAS - Hikers into Havasu Canyon, which is on the edge of the Grand Canyon, generate millions of dollars in revenue each year, but at a terrible cost to the animals that do most of the heavy lifting.
The I-Team recently hiked into the canyon to document tales of widespread abuse of pack animals. The stories of horses and mules being worked to death have persisted for many years. Help will be on the way soon, though.
A horse, alone, tied up in the hot sun on the trail into Havasu Canyon, was clearly in distress when four hikers passed by in early May.
"We didn't know what to do for the horse ... and you can hear him breathing. He had sweat pouring off of his body. It was literally pouring off of his body," said Courtney, who did not want to reveal her last name publicly.
A video was recorded by Courtney, an Arizona woman hiking with her mother and two young daughters. They left but returned when they saw a wrangler kicking the frightened horse. Within minutes, the horse was laying down on the ground.
"The packer did tell us that the horse did this all the time and that he was just taking a rest. We have horses and our horses don't rest like that. Once the saddle was off of him, you could see all the saddle sores. He had them all over. All open bloody sores. At that point, he was still breathing but it didn't look like he would be for long. So, the packer, he was very upset with us," Courtney said.
The witnesses were crying, horrified, but felt threatened by the wrangler's profanity so they left. They don't know if the horse survived.
The canyon trail is littered with the bones of horses that didn't make it. Just a few days earlier, a Las Vegas veterinarian saw a seemingly healthy horse collapse from the weight of ice chests.
"Everyone saw it," said Dr. Morgan Daigle, a Las Vegas veterinarian. "We were yelling things."
Most of the 300 or so visitors who hike into Havasu Canyon each day don't notice the condition of the pack animals that zip past them on the hot dusty trails down to the cool, green oasis of Supai, home to spectacular water falls and pools. But it's no oasis for many animals which live there. Horses and mules covered with open sores, wounds down to the bone and starving.
"They eat rocks. a horse was observed eating cardboard. They're eating their own excrement, all the time. It's horrible," said Susan Ash, co-founder of SAVE.
The website Susan Ash helped create a year ago has become a central clearinghouse for horror stories about the Havasu horses. Photos and videos and detailed reports show the depth of the abuse.
An I-Team trek into the canyon weeks ago verified many of the stories. Hundreds of people reacted by calling the tribe to complain. Tribal leaders say its fake news, or that these are isolated incidents.
"I'd like someone to tell me how many isolated incidents before they are not considered isolated any more," Ash said.
PHOTOS: Pack animals at Havasu Canyon
(Warning: Some images may be disturbing.)
She says most visitors are not looking for signs of abuse, or look the other way rather than spoil their expensive vacation. it typically costs around $240 round trip to hire a pack animal to carry ice chests or gear. Many of the animals appear to be in good shape and well fed, but the tribe has had decades to crack down on the abusers.
"We're not saying it's the entire Havasupai tribe. It's just some, but they're allowed to do it. They get away with it. They don't face any consequences for it and it goes on and on and on. It's horrifying," Ash said.
Ash is banned from setting foot on Havasupai land. Other animal groups have tried to help over the years but have been also been thwarted. Soon, though, the Humane Society of the U.S. is planning an expedition into the canyon with a team of volunteer experts.
"We are taking in a vet, a dentist, a farrier as well as their assistants. The reason we are going in is to provide some direct care, direct treatment to the horses some education to community members and continue to establish a relationship with the tribe," said Kellye Pinkelton, Arizona director, Humane Society:
It has taken a year for the HSUS to reach an agreement with the tribe, and Pinkleton hopes it will become a permanent relationship. Helicopters will be used to haul in hay and other supplies. HSUS knows it needs to tread lightly.
"There are always some bad actors. and unfortunately those bad actors can do significant damage to animals, but there are also community members that understand basic care," Pinkleton said.
The Humane Society says it will report back after its four-day expedition.
There is no veterinarian in the canyon, and all supplies must be shipped in from the outside, so it is expensive work to care for the pack animals.
(To directly help support the Humane Society's work on this project, visit the Arizona Coalition for Equines website and select "Havasupai Horses Fund" in the "Donate To" drop down menu)