LAS VEGAS - One of the most beautiful places in the world is drawing attention, not for its scenery, but for its long history of animal abuse.
Havasu Canyon, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, is accessible by foot, by helicopter, or on the backs of animals.
Horses, burros, and donkeys have endured unimaginable suffering, but their plight has been hidden as well as ignored by most of the hundreds of visitors who arrive each day.
But the word is finally getting out.
Havasu Canyon might as well be on the planet Pandora. It is astonishing, almost surreal. For such a beautiful spot, it hides an ugly secret, one that is finally being exposed. Nearly everything that goes in or comes out of the canyon is carried on the backs of pack animals -- horses, donkeys, and burros, many of which endure shortened lives marked by pain, abuse, and starvation.
The waterfalls of Havasu canyon can rightly be called a bucket list destination. A series of spectacular waterfalls and pools of turquoise water on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
This is tribal land. Each day, the road leading to the canyon is lined with cars. Three hundred or more tourists pay a fee to the Havasupai tribe to make the 10 mile hike down to the falls.
It starts at hilltop, on the rim, traverses a narrow, rocky trail that zigs and zags and drops 2,000 feet. Some hikers carry their own camping gear, enough to stay for a few days at the bottom, called Supai, where tribal members have lived for 1,000 years. Many visitors rely on pack animals to haul mountains of tents, backpacks and ice chests down the steep canyon and then back up again. For at least 50 years or more, the pack animals have been the dark secret of the Havasupai.
"They’re making millions off the backs of bloodied skeleton-like horses," said Susan Ash. "That place is a death camp for horses. Literally."
For years, Susan Ash heard the horrific stories about horses and burros at Havasupai. She created an organization, SAVE, and website, which has become a clearinghouse for social media posts from outraged hikers. The most obvious problem is that many of the pack animals are severely undernourished, to the point of starvation. Some visitors don’t seem to notice, or look the other way. Others have posted what they describe as horrific photos and videos on line.
PHOTOS: Horses and burros at Havasu Canyon
(Warning: Some images may be disturbing.)
"They’re left up at hilltop for hours on end sometimes, I’ve heard they’re left up there for days sometimes, tied up too tight they can’t turn their necks. Temperatures in the summer frequently exceed 115 degrees, no shade, no water," Ash said.
A photo posted in 2016 captured what is not uncommon for the animals -- a horse who was so undernourished and so overloaded on trips up and down the canyon that his hide had worn down right to the bone.
Multiple horses and burros have been documented with open sores, broken bones, some of which are hidden from tourists under blankets and saddles. There is water and potential food along the trail, but the animals aren’t allowed to stop during their 10 mile treks. They run hard and when they falter or fall?
"If you go there, you see the skeletons of dead animals, you see the carcasses frequently off to the side of the trail," Ash said.
"There are pictures that we have in a report that we put together that were given to us by eyewitnesses that were animals that collapsed on the trail, and left there to die and are eaten by feral dogs," Ash said.
The Havasupai tribe is a sovereign nation, so agencies which might intervene to protect against animal abuse have largely looked the other way. A year ago, things changed somewhat, because of pressure from Susan Ash and others, federal agents intervened. One horse wrangler from the tribe faced criminal charges and his animals were confiscated.
Since then, the tribe says it took steps to end the abuse. How true is that? Two of my i-team colleagues recently hiked the trail and camped in the canyon. That story will air at 11 p.m.