Vieques is a small island off mainland Puerto Rico, known for one of the world’s most remarkable bioluminescent bays, and for its beautiful, free-roaming horses. Months ago, the mayor of this island, Victor Emeric, called us after he learned about the work we have been doing in Puerto Rico, especially with street dogs. He had a different kind of problem on his hands: a rapidly swelling wild horse population.
Mayor Emeric wants to preserve the island’s horses for their own sake and for the health of the tourism-based economy, but he also wants the population to be maintained at a healthy and stable level. As the number of horses has grown, the problems they face have magnified. Many die in large numbers during droughts, still more are hit by cars while walking into town to seek out extremely scarce fresh water sources. The horses are so desperate for water that in some cases they have learned how to break the water pipes, creating conflicts with humans.
The HSUS has been on the ground in Puerto Rico since 2015, when we announced a comprehensive partnership with the commonwealth’s government to transform animal welfare on the island. We have already made significant strides: among many ongoing initiatives, we have trained more than 2,000 administrators, social workers, and teachers to cultivate a greater appreciation for animals among Puerto Rico’s schoolchildren; we have trained approximately 3,000 law enforcement officers in animal cruelty investigations; we have so far held more than 16 vaccination and spay/neuter clinics across the island, focusing on areas that lack veterinary services. Recently, we hosted a daylong Shelter Symposium in San Juan where more than 200 attendees, representing all major shelters and rescues on the island, came together for training in topics ranging from shelter operations and adoptions to community outreach.
So when he needed help with controlling the wild horse population of the island, Mayor Emeric turned to us. And we had just the solution, which is both humane and effective: the immunocontraceptive PZP, which The HSUS helped develop.
In November, The HSUS started administering PZP to the wild mares in Vieques to keep them from foaling every year. The use of PZP in wild horse herds has been studied extensively for more than 20 years, and it has been proven to be more than 90 percent effective and safe. The use of PZP will not only gradually reduce the island’s wild horse population, but it will also help alleviate some of the human-horse conflicts, and result in an overall improvement in the quality of life for the horses. Treated mares will see increased health benefits and will lead longer and healthier lives without the stress of repeated pregnancy and lactation in an environment with few basic resources. In the long term, the competition for scarce resources will decrease as the population stabilizes and declines to sustainable levels.
Our work has taken off in a very promising way, with locals bringing in injured foals and asking what they can do to help. The horses actually approach our darting team after the initial vaccine is administered, a hopeful sign of the non-invasive, even non-aversive nature of this fertility control regimen. Local cowboys are asking if they can volunteer and be trained to take over the program eventually.
As part of our comprehensive approach, water troughs are being placed closer to the horses’ natural habitat which serves two purposes: providing a sustainable source of fresh water and luring the horses away from busy urban centers to prevent horse-vehicle collisions.
This January we will conduct a horse festival in Vieques to coincide with our darting program. The festival is geared for the young generation of horse enthusiasts. At the festival teens will have their horses vetted, receive grooming materials, books, and much more. Simultaneously we will conduct two spay/neuter/vaccine clinics for domestic animals like cats and dogs. Accompanying us will be a large group of HSUS supporters who have spurred our capacity to carry out this wonderful program to help the animals of Puerto Rico.
It’s our goal to create Humane Puerto Rico. This program adds a remarkable new dimension to our existing, comprehensive, multi-species approach.