From the edge of the canyon, looking out at the towering stone ridges and the sun-spackled desert valley, listening to the wind whistle around the rocks, it seems like it could be a hundred, a thousand or even 10,000 years ago, when this isolated Arizona chasm leading to the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon would have looked much the same.
Then, from far across the canyon to the north, there’s a tiny movement, so small at first that it looks like an insect hovering over the canyon floor, closing the distance, growing larger until its outlines become clear. Its rotating blades slice up the silence as it swoops in, churning up clouds of dust as it lands on the helipad, the staging area around it cluttered with piles of backpacks and camping gear.
Here, sunburned and dusty trekkers mingle with members of the Havasupai tribe coming and going from Supai, the tiny town hidden in the canyon. The locals are headed to and from jobs and doctor’s appointments and supply runs in neighboring towns—“neighboring” being a relative term, as the closest place with a rudimentary grocery store is Peach Springs, some 70 miles away.
Starting down the rough trail, some hikers carry backpacks, but many of them carry next to nothing. To get materials into the canyon, people have three options: carry them in over eight hot miles of rocky switchbacks and loose gravel; pay to have the chopper haul their supplies; or hire a packer—members of the Havasupai tribe that owns this land, who run pack horses and mules from the rim into town. From the edge, you can occasionally spot little packs of equines on the trails far below, kicking up pale dust as they swiftly pass the hikers whose tents and hot dogs and beer they’re carrying ahead.
It’s these horses who have brought HSUS Arizona state director Kellye Pinkleton, along with a team of volunteer veterinarians and horse advocates, to Supai. They are the reason that, among the piles of camping gear piled up for chopper rides into the canyon, there are bales of hay, bags of feed, salt blocks and packs of veterinary tools—brought here so that the team Pinkleton has assembled can provide sustenance and services to the animals, and ideally kick off a long-term working relationship with the Havasupai tribe.
The right kind of help
In 2016, Pinkleton left a coalition that had formed to try to help the Supai horses. The group had good intentions, she says, but its approach was marked by an attitude suggesting that—rather than being largely the result of economic deprivation and lack of access to resources—the poor condition of Supai’s horses was due to apathy on the part of the tribe as a whole. That attitude, unsurprisingly, didn’t play well. There’s a complex web of federal laws governing how federal agencies interact with reservations, but tribes are essentially nations, and their tribal councils decide who can work on their land. They’re less likely to welcome animal advocates as partners if those partners seem to be offering help with one hand and a slap in the face with the other.
The situation is a complicated one—economically, culturally, geographically—and Pinkleton recognized that it needed to be addressed accordingly. Determined to make headway, she began talking to Fink and the tribe’s attorney. “It was a chance for them to find out a little more about The HSUS—what were our intentions, and quite frankly, to determine if we would be a safe partner to work with. Was this really about working in collaboration and partnership?”
The tribal council agreed to meet with Pinkleton. On her visit, she listened to their concerns and explained how The HSUS planned to approach the problem. In May 2017, with the tribe’s consent, she took a group of volunteers into Supai, including private-practice veterinarians, advocates, farriers and horse rescuers from Healing Hearts Animal Rescue and Equine Voices Rescue & Sanctuary.
Making it last
By the end of the weekend, the team had treated 70 horses and helped place the wheelbarrow pups with Coconino Humane. Many of the volunteers expressed happiness about what they’d been able to do. The challenge is making the work sustainable—because the realities of the reservation remain.
Hanna has been to a cruelty response training workshop The HSUS conducted with the Maricopa County sheriff’s department, Pinkleton says, and while the team was at work, she and her young assistants, Darius and Lone Arrow, were on hand, watching the farriers trim hooves and learning about other equine health issues.
That education will help the tribe carry on the work. “If [our animal control officers] could be trained in those and vaccinations and worming, that would be a good benefit for the community,” says Don Watahomigie, chair of the tribal council, “because a lot of the horses will get worms, or they’ll get an injury that requires penicillin.” While it’s not the same as having a veterinarian nearby, training and access to veterinary supplies would ensure there’s someone who can provide basic grooming, wellness and first aid.
On the last day, the team got up before dawn to wave goodbye to the volunteers from the equine rescue groups, who had taken on a final task: One local horse was in particularly rough shape and had gone blind, and Equine Voices had agreed to take the horse. With Darius as their guide, the rescuers set out through the dark, leading the blind horse across the desert and up along narrow switchbacks to the canyon rim where they’d started days before.
The horse was leaving the canyon forever. The team was already planning to go back and do more, working with the Havasupai to care for the horses who, for hundreds of years, have helped the tribe survive in this hard but beautiful place.