BOOKS: Wild Horses: The world’s last surviving herds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2006:

Wild Horses: The world’s last surviving herds
by Elwyn Hartley Edwards
Hylas Publishing (129 Main Street, Irvington, NY10533), 2006. 144
pages, hard cover. $24.95.

Well-researched and beautifully presented, with inspiring
photos of exquisite horses, this book presents a wealth of
information about feral horses around the world.
Feral horses persist in places as remote as the Namib desert
in Africa and as seemingly unlikely as the saltwater marshes of the
Camargue region in southern France.
Unfortunately, there are now no longer any true wild horses,
except for Africa zebras and Asiatic wild asses, and their numbers
too have declined because of hunting.
Page after page describes how various wild horse herds were hunted
out of existence.

For example, “The Kirghiz people had known of the Asiatic
wild horse for generations and, indeed, had hunted it almost to
extinction by the 19th century.” The tarpan was “intensively hunted
and did not survive in any numbers into the last part of the 18th
The African quagga vanished, although back-breeding zebras
for quagga traits may recover it. “Farmers just went on shooting
them to provide meat for their workers without ever thinking that so
numerous a species could ever be destroyed entirely,” Edwards notes.
Hundreds of thousands of mustangs were slaughtered in the
U.S. west, mainly for pet food.
There are now several dozen “managed herds” of feral horses
around the world. Edwards describes these horses in great detail.
Unfortunately, the final paragraphs spoilt the book for me.
I quote: “More humane and caring attitudes towards horses, whether
wild or domestic, prevail in the modern world than in past
centuries, and are of course to be welcomed. However, in human
efforts to relate to an animal species, there is always the danger
of indulging in the destructive practice of anthropomorphism. The
horse is not human. It does not have the human capacity for reason.
It is a creature of instincts acquired before recorded time and,
while it deserves our respect, it is best viewed in that light.
Nor, in respect of feral stock, is it wise to confuse conservation
with preservation. The former is an exercise in practical management
of the environment; the latter, an uninformed rejection of natural
fact that is at once sterile and a recipe for ecological disaster.”
The term “reason,” in academic behavioral research,
describes not just the process of systematic thought, but a
particular type of systematic thought, going beyond cause-and-effect
use of logic to seek how a hypothesized cause creates an observed
effect. Horses may not be capable of reason under that definition,
although recent research indicates that many non-human species are.
Presented without explicit definition and qualification,
however, this paragraph appears to exactly the insensitive and
condescending attitude which has caused the horse extinctions that
Edwards chronicles.
–Beverley Pervan
South Africa

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