Are Wild Horses Sovereign?

In 2018, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed to “remove” almost 60,000 wild horses, burros, and foals from 10 western states to achieve “appropriate management levels” for these animal populations. Ironically enough, the horse and burro population size that the BLM endeavors to presently realize by means of adoption, sterilization, and slaughter is not much larger than the size of the 1971 population. And in 1971, the wild horse and burro population was considered to have dwindled so significantly that Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Here, we have a delicious instance of government-induced irony. A declining horse population was identified as a problem which the U.S. government had a vested interest in, given that wild free-roaming horses and burros “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit” of the American West. The solution they provided in the form of purportedly protective legislation engendered an unintended consequence: horse and burro overpopulation that has produced grievous ecological complication, resulted in human death, and led to the starvation of the horses and burros themselves. 

Granted, the resolution of 1971 seems different in character than that which is sought by the U.S. government today. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act endeavored to protect horse populations, whereas the policies being pursued by the BLM today seek to institutionally domesticate, sterilize, and slaughter these wild beings. The ostensibly protective Act of 1971, however, gave the Secretary of the Interior the authority to “remove excess animals” from areas to “preserve and maintain a thriving ecological balance.” Moreover, the “protections” afforded the wild horses and burros resulted in overpopulation that has left many of these beings emaciated if not starved. Both instances, though their intentions for the affected wild animals may be different, can be characterized by subjecting wild horses and burros to regulation by the state.  

To treat these animals as property that can be willfully regulated by the state is to deprive them of any chance at being able to roam freely and pursue interests on terms that are uniquely their own. Even if the Secretary of the Interior were so benevolent as not to regulate the wild horse population while still retaining the authority to do so if need be, the integrity and well-being of the horse population would be highly contingent. 

Might it be the case, however, that this wild animal population ought to be afforded a degree of sovereignty that requires the United States to respect the interests that wild horses and burros, as a population, have in autonomy and self-regulation? Do wild horses and burros have rights that ought to be respected by the United States government? 

The language of rights can be confusing (especially when discussing animal rights) since there are three senses in which an individual may have a right: a moral right, a political right, and/or a legal right. What makes matters even more confusing is that there is overlap between these kinds of rights. For example, many would assert that it is morally wrong, an infringement of a political right, and illegal when an individual commits premeditated murder against an innocent person. But then something may be arguably morally wrong (i.e. lying to your high school girlfriend) that should not be and is not met with punishment by the state. And different still, an action may be arguably morally praiseworthy (i.e. killing somebody to save others) that would still require the state to administer justice against the killer both because it is written in the law and because justice itself requires it. 

Moreover, rights can be construed as either negative or positive. An individual can be said to hold a negative right when they are owed non-interference. Rights that are negative in nature include a right to freedom from coercion. Having a claim to a positive right, on the other hand, requires that others act positively with respect to your person for the right to be adequately enforced. A right to subsistence would be such a right.   

I contend that wild animals have negative rights—specifically rights to sovereignty and non-interference—that entail a negative political obligation for sovereign states. These rights, however, may not be as robust as some animal rights activists would like. Furthermore, it would be improper for a state to act as though it has positive political obligations to wild animals because these obligations would correspond with positive political rights which these animals are not necessarily owed. 

I understand that the thought of wild animal sovereignty inspires in many utter indignation. But it is important to be clear as to what “sovereignty” as a philosophical concept truly entails. Sovereign communities, as John Hadley puts it in his “Wild Animals as Political Subjects,” are constituted by subjects that are bound to one another on the basis of shared interests. In this way, a wild animal community ought to be viewed as a “sovereign community” in the sense that the animals in question have shared interests with respect to preserving the integrity of their territory and in living without threat of suffering (Hadley 2019). So that they may roam freely and without fear of institutional persecution, wild animal populations ought to be extended sovereignty considerations.

On this understanding of wild animal sovereignty, it appears that wild animals (like free-roaming horses and burros) bear rights in the sense that the American government is under some sort of political stricture not to infringe on their ability to self-govern. It is in this sense that the United States government is negatively obligated to wild horses and burros of the American West. 

In Zoopolis, however, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka contend that wild animal populations ought to be afforded sovereignty akin to that rendered Non-Self-Governing Territories by the United Nations. That is, we should treat wild animal populations as members of a sovereign nation that has “interests in autonomy, which, in turn, depends on whether [the] flourishing [of wild animals] is tied to their ability to maintain their modes of social organization and self-regulation on their territory” (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, pp. 173, emphasis added). Sovereignty recognition of this kind, however, appears to require a degree of state intervention which constitutes a violation of the political right that wild horses and burros have to self-governance. This is owed in large part to the fact that human beings, as rational and calculating as we have the potential to be, are fallible and embarrassingly so at that.

It is important to remember that the decision to aid others must take into account many considerations, including the consideration of whether aid will cause greater future harm than the present harm (Simmons 2009, pp. 21-23). Since executives of the state (like the Secretary of the Interior) have demonstrated that they cannot anticipate the damaging consequences of state action with respect to wild animal populations, they ought to refrain from making decisions about ways to provide these sovereign communities with aid. 

An analogy may be appropriately drawn between the ways in which intervention in animal sovereign communities produces unintended consequences comparable to those produced by intervention in human sovereign communities. When the United States intervened in the Afghan civil war by providing covert aid to Afghani resistance fighters, surely nobody foresaw that some would go on to be responsible for orchestrating the September 11 attacks. Yet, this is exactly what happened. Actions have consequences. Regardless of how pure intentions may be, results can still be pernicious. 

Some may rejoinder that the inaction which I advocate for, too, has consequences. But this criticism fails to account for the ways in which state action often requires resources provided by individuals who may or may not agree with the policy prescription at hand. When an individual chooses to act in a given manner, their action is their own. State action requires the extortion (in the form of taxation) of its citizens to be made possible in the first place, and this extortion cannot be justified unless it is in the pursuit of enforcing the political rights of individuals. 

Wild horses and burros certainly have a political right to the thin conception of sovereignty outlined above, but it is not so clear whether they have others. In order to claim that wild horses and burros have rights comparable to those of their human counterparts, one would have to demonstrate that they have interests and/or capacities that deem them worthy of these significant political protections. Perhaps such a case could be made, but given what we know about these animals it appears that they do not have such interests and/or capacities. It is therefore best to respect those rights that we know the beings to have—namely, a right to wild animal sovereignty that confers on states an obligation not to regulate wild animal populations. 

Wild horses and burros are beautiful, they embody the spirit of the American West, and they are of great ecosystemic value—but they do not seem to be political subjects in the sense that they can be afforded rights protections associated with personhood. These majestic beings do, however, have a right not to be governed by the United States by virtue of their sovereignty, which is why the BLM ought to suspend its efforts to regulate the wild horse and burro population. I and many others would argue that they have strong moral claims to be cared for in particular ways given the extreme and profound suffering they are enduring. But moral rights are not meant to be enforced by political institutions unless they also happen to be political rights. 

So join me in saying “neigh” to the extermination of wild horses and burros, but also to activists who purport that the government has duties to the wild animal population beyond respecting its sovereignty. The government is meant to enforce political rights, and the only such right that wild horses and burros have is a right to self-governance consistent with a thin conception of wild animal sovereignty.

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