A highly contagious disease has killed 85 wild horses kept at a facility in less than a week in Colorado, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said on Wednesday.
“Wild horses at the Wild Horse facility in Canon City have been infected with an unknown yet highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease,” the bureau said in a statement. The outbreak started on April 23, and veterinarians are trying to determine the exact cause of death.
Every year, the BLM rounds up thousands of wild horses in the United States in an attempt to control wild horse populations. Some animals get adopted, but most remain in captivity for years.
In total, there are almost 60,000 wild horses and a few hundred donkeys in captivity under the bureau’s care.
Steven Hall, spokesperson for the BLM, told news agency Reuters that animals who are sick or have been in contact with infected horses are being kept away from the healthy ones. “The main symptoms seem to be respiratory issues and chest congestion,” Hall said.
He added that the dead horses are undergoing necropsies, and blood and tissue samples are being researched at two university laboratories.
Animal rights activists have long said that the bureau’s horse roundups and living conditions for the caught animals are inhumane.
“Disease outbreaks and deaths are the direct result of the BLM’s mass roundups. Now, more than 60,000 wild horses and burros are in overcrowded dirt holding pens,” Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), said in a statement.
“The agency is planning to round up and remove another 19,000 wild horses and burros from public lands this year. We can expect to see more suffering and death if BLM continues down this dangerous and destructive path,” Roy said, adding that the animals are not livestock but “iconic and federally protected wildlife species.”
Scott Beckstead, director of campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy, said he thought the outbreak was an indication that the conditions in the horse holding facilities were too crowded and filthy.
“We’ve seen photographs of the horses at Canon City,” he told The New York Times. “It’s cramped. The horses are standing closely together. It’s just a perfect environment for disease to spread.”
According to the AWHC, wild horses have died at BLM facilities within weeks or months after being caught in cruel roundup operations.
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