Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:


So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

2 (1)

It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Flashback Friday.

I heard stories this week about dung beetles and cuttlefish.  Both made me think about the typical stories we hear in the media about evolved human mating strategies.  First, the stories:


Story #1 :The Dung Beetle

Photo from flickr by Camilo Hdo.
Photo by Camilo Hdo, retrieved from flickr.

A story on Quirks and Quarks discussed the mating strategies of the dung beetle.  The picture above is of a male beetle; only the males have those giant horns.  He uses it to defend the entrance to a tiny burrow in which he keeps a female.  He’ll violently fight off other dung beetles who try to get access to the burrow.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

There’s a twist: while only male dung beetles have horns, not all males have horns.  Some are completely hornless.  But if horns help you win the fight, how is hornlessness being passed down genetically?

Well, it turns out that when a big ol’ horned male is fighting with some other big ol’ horned male, little hornless males sneak into burrows and mate with the females.  They get discovered and booted out, of course, and the horned male will re-mate with the female with the hopes of displacing his sperm.


Those little hornless males have giant testicles, way gianter than the horned males.  While the horned males are putting all of their energy into growing horns, the hornless males are making sperm.  So, even though they have limited access to females, they get as much mileage out of their access as they can.

The result: two distinct types of male dung beetles with two distinct mating strategies.


Story #2: The Giant Australian Cuttlefish

Photo by Paul Oughton, retrieved from Flickr.

The Naked Scientists podcast featured a story about Giant Australian Cuttlefish.  During mating season the male cuttlefish, much larger than the females, collect “harems” and spend their time mating and defending access.  Other males try to “muscle in,” but the bigger cuttlefish “throws his weight around” to scare him off. The biggest cuttlefish wins.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

Well, according The Naked Scientists story, researchers have discovered an alternative mating strategy.  Small males, who are far too small to compete with large males, will pretend to be female, sneak into the defended territory, mate, and leave.

How do they do this?  They change their color pattern and rearrange their tentacles in a more typical female arrangement (they didn’t specify what this was) and, well, pass.  The large male thinks he’s another female. In the video below, the cuttlefish uses his ability to change the pattern on his body. He simultaneously displays a male pattern to the female and a female pattern to the large male on the other side.


So, can the crossdressing cuttlefish and dodge-y dung beetle tell us anything about evolved human mating strategies?

Probably not.

But I do think it tells us something about how we should think about evolution and the reproduction of genes. If you listen to the media cover evolutionary psychological explanations of human mating, you only hear one story about the strategies that males use to try to get sex. That story sounds a lot like the one told about the horned beetle and the large male cuttlefish.

But these species have demonstrated that there need not be only one mating strategy. In these cases, there are at least two. So, why in Darwin’s name would we assume that human beings, in all of their beautiful and incredible complexity, would only have one? Perhaps we see a diversity in types of human males (different body shapes and sizes, different intellectual gifts, etc) because there are many different ways to attract females. Maybe females see something valuable in many different kinds of males! Maybe not all females are the same!

Let’s set aside the stereotypes about men and women that media reporting on evolutionary psychology tends to reproduce and, instead, consider the possibility that human mating is at least as complex as that of dung beetles and cuttlefish.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Prior to the 1850s, writes cultural studies scholar Matthew Brower, men in America didn’t hunt. More specifically, they didn’t hunt for leisure. There was a hunting industry that employed professionals who hunted as a full time occupation, and there was a large market for wild animal products, but hunting for fun wasn’t a common pastime.

This changed in the second half of the 1800s. Americans were increasingly living in cities and being “citified.” Commenters worried that urban life was making men effeminate, effete, overly civilized, domesticated if you will. Cities were a threat to manliness and nature the salve.

Hunting trophies, taxidermied remains of wild animals, served as symbolic proof of one’s “hardiness.” Unlike the animal parts bought at market — whether for food or furs, as feathers on hats, or the then-popular elk tooth watch chain — animals a man killed himself reflected on his skill and character.


As Theodore Roosevelt once put it:

Nothing adds more to a hall or a room than fine antlers when their owner has been shot by the hunter-displayer, but always there is an element of the absurd in a room furnished with trophies of the chase that the displayer has acquired by purchase.

New, elite recreational hunters castigated both lesser men, who purchased animal parts for display, and women who bought them purely for fashion.

This was the origin of the idea that hunting is a contest, as opposed to an occupation or necessity. To paraphrase Brower, a trophy can’t be bought, it must be earned. Thus, the notion of “sportsmanship” as applied to the hunt. If a kill is going to indicate skill, then the hunted must have a “sporting chance.” Thus, recreational hunters developed an etiquette for sportsmanlike hunting, spread through new hunting magazines and periodicals.

Not only did this allow men to claim manly cred, it allowed wealthy men to claim class cred. Brower writes:

Both subsistence and market hunters, the majority of hunters, were placed outside the purview of the sportsman’s code. Those who hunted out of necessity or for profit never could obtain the aesthetic detachment necessary to be considered sportsmen.

In fact, wealthy recreational hunters claimed that only they were “real hunters” and even organized against people who hunted for food and money. For example,

[Roosevelt himself] blamed the decline of game on market hunters, who he argued, had “no excuse of any kind” for the wanton slaughter of animals.

Trophy hunters successfully enacted statutes limiting other types of hunting, so as to preserve game for themselves.

The rarer and larger the animal, the more exquisite the specimen, and the more a man has killed, the better the animals speak to a his manliness and his elite economic and social class. This is perhaps the attraction of international trophy hunting today: the seeking of more exotic and elusive game to bring home and display. And it is perhaps why some people pay $50,000 to travel across the world, kill a lion, cut off its head, then post it on Facebook.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sometimes the sexy goes too far. These are some of those times.

Sexy pizza rat (Yandy):


Sexy Cecil the Lion (Yandy):


Sexy Donald Trump (Yandy):


Sexy Rosie the Riveter (Party City):


Sexy Frankenstein (Yandy):


Sexy infant (Yandy):

Sexy Charlie Brown (Yandy):


For more Sexy What!?, see our past posts featuring Sexy Chinese Take-OutSexy Yoda, and Sexy Chuckie.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Two of my favorite podcasts, Radio Lab and Quirks and Quarks, have stories bout how inertia and reliance on technology can inhibit our ability to find easy, cheap solutions to problems.

Story One

The first story, at Radio Lab, was about a nursing home in Düsseldorf, Germany.  As patients age, nursing homes risk that they will become disoriented and “escape” the nursing home.  Often, they are trying to return to homes in which they lived previously, desperate that their children, partners, or even parents are worried and waiting for them.

When they catch the escapee in time, the patient is often extremely upset and an altercation ensues.  If they don’t catch them in time, the patient often hops onto public transportation and is eventually discovered by police.  The first outcome is unpleasant for everyone involved and the second outcome is very dangerous for the patient.  Most nursing homes fix this problem by confining patients who’ve began to wander off to a locked ward.

An employee at the Benrath Senior Center came up with an alternative solution: a fake bus stop placed right outside of the front doors of the nursing home.  The fake bus stop does two wonderful things:

(1)  The first thing a potential escapee does when they decide to “go home” is find a bus stop.  So, patients who take off usually get no further than the first bus stop that they see.  “Where did Mrs. Schmidt go?”  “Oh, she’s at the bus stop.”  In practice, it worked tremendously.  This meant that many disoriented patients no longer needed to be kept in locked wards.

(2)  The bus stop diffuses the sense of panic.  If a delusional patient decided that she needed to go home immediately because her children were all alone and waiting for her, the attendant didn’t need to restrain her or talk her out of it, she simply said, “Oh, well… there’s the bus stop.”  The patient would go sit and wait.  Knowing that she was on her way home, she would relax and, given her diminished cognition, she would eventually forget why she was there.  A little while later the attendant could go out and ask her if she wanted to come in for tea.  And she would say, “Ok.”

Listening to this, I thought it was just about the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard.

Story Two

The second story, from Quirks and Quarks, was regarding whether it is true that dogs can smell cancer.  It turns out that they can.  It appears that dogs can smell lots of types of cancer, but people have been working specifically with training them to detect melanomas, or skin cancers.  It turns out that a dog can be trained, in about three to six weeks, to detect melanomas (even some invisible to the naked eye) with an 80-90% accuracy rate.   If we could build a machine that was able to detect the same chemical that dogs are reacting to (and we don’t know, at this time, what that is) it would have to be the size of a refrigerator to match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose.  When it comes to detecting melanomas, dogs are better diagnosticians than our best humans and our most advanced machines.

Doggy doctors offer some really wonderful possibilities, such as delivering low cost cancer detection to communities who may not have access to clinical care.  A mobile cancer detection puppy bus, anyone?

Both these stories — about these talented animals and the pretend bus stop — are fantastic examples of what we can do without advanced technology. I fear that we fetishize the latter, turning first to technology and forgetting to be creative about how to solve problems without them.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Back when I was in high school and college, I learned that one of the major things that separated humans from other species was culture. The ability to develop distinct ways of living that include an understanding of symbols, language, and customs unique to the group was a specifically human trait.

And, ok, so it turned out that other species had more complex communication systems than we thought they did, but still, other animals were assumed to behave according to instinct, not community-specific cultures.

But as with so many things humans have been convinced we alone possess, it’s turning out that other species have cultures, too. One of the clearest examples is the division of orcas into two groups with distinct customs and eating habits; one eats mammals while the other is pescetarian, eating only fish. Though the two groups regularly come in contact with each other in the wild, they do not choose to intermingle or mate with one another. Here’s a video:


Aside from the obvious implications for our understanding of culture, this brings up an issue in terms of conservation. Take the case of orcas. Some are suggesting that they should be on the endangered species list because the population has declined. What do we do if it turns out at some point that, while the overall orca population is not fully endangered, one of the distinct orca cultural groups is? Is it enough that killer whales still exist, or do we need to think of the cultures separately and try to preserve sufficient numbers of each? In addition to being culturally different, they are functionally non-interchangeable: each group has a different effect on food chains and ecosystems.

Should conservation efforts address not just keeping the overall population alive and functioning, but ensure that the range of cultural diversity within a species is protected? If this situation occurred, should we declare one orca culture as endangered but not the other? Are both ecological niches important?

I love these questions. If we recognize that creatures can have cultures, it challenges our sense of self, but also brings significantly more complexity to the idea of wildlife preservation.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

If you are worried about the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals, you can become a vegetarian or a vegan. But if you worry about the abuse and exploitation of humans, there is no morally upright consumer choice you can make, short of growing 100% of your food yourself.

This is the main message of journalist Eric Schlosser in this 4min video produced by BigThink. In it, he summarizes the extent of the exploitation of poor people, mostly immigrants, in the restaurant industry, the meatpacking industry, and the production of fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Especially for the people who pick our produce, he insists, the working conditions “are more reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century than they are with the twenty-first century.” It is “literally slavery.”

Watch here:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Most Americans, when asked if they are affected by advertising, will say “not really.” They think other people are influenced by cultural messages, but that they are somehow immune.

Whether people are shaped by the media they consume seems to be a perpetual question. The fact that billions of dollars are spent every year attempting to influence us is probably a sign that advertisers know it works. Scientists get in on the action, asking pressing questions like: Do violent video games increase violence in real life? Do sexy, thin models hurt girls’ self-esteem? We do the studies and the answers are often inconclusive, probably because of how complicated the relationships are.

Psychologist Stefano Ghirlanda and his colleagues asked a slightly simpler question: Do celebrity dogs influence the popularity of dog breeds? They looked at 100 movies with prominent dog characters from 1939 to 2003 and compared the release date to breed registrations. The answer seems to be: with the exception of box office flops, yes.


Given that many dog movies are made for kids, I’d be interested in the mediating role of parenthood. Companies that make children’s products like sugary cereal know that they can get the parent to buy their product if the kid is annoying enough about it. So, they market to children directly. I’d love to see if people with and without small children were equally affected by the breed of dog in this year’s movie.

The researchers method of popularity, moreover, was registration with the American Kennel Club. Pure bred dogs are expensive. So, I wonder if the power of these trends varies by social class. If a family can’t afford a “Beethoven,” they may be more likely to just adopt a mutt from a neighbor’s litter.

In any case, though, this seems like incontrovertible evidence that we’re influenced by mass media. But you already knew everyone else was, didn’t you?

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.