Tourists aiming to protect underfed, injured animals at Grand Canyon

Posted at 7:29 AM, Jul 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-01 14:25:50-04

No food. No water. No respect. 

That's how some people say horses at one of Arizona's most popular tourist attractions are getting treated.

It's a little piece of heaven, nestled inside the Grand Canyon, but some say inside this paradise is a deep, dark secret that's finally getting exposed. 

"Most of them were very underweight, and the fact that they were forced to run up the canyon was a little bit intense," explains Katie Migliavacca about the horses she saw at Havasupai Falls.

Katie and her sister traveled to Havasupai earlier this year from San Francisco and said they couldn't believe what they saw.

"We saw tons of horses and mules that were tied up to posts in direct sunlight, no shade, no water....we saw horses that were roaming around free, eating their own manure or cardboard or trash because they had nothing to eat."

Getting down to the falls isn't easy. In fact, many tourists seek out guides that use these horses to haul equipment and belongings on the miles-long trek. And it comes at a huge cost to these animals, says Susan Ash, founder of the group, "S.A.V.E." which stands for "Stop Animal Violence."

"It's like turning a huge ship around with a lot of momentum going in the other direction," explains Ash.

But this year, there have been a few successes. In the spring, federal authorities busted Leland Joe, a member of the Havasupai Tribe, with animal cruelty and even confiscated his horses.

And just a few weeks ago, the Supai Tribe announced it was temporarily suspending third party tours. They told us this was in order to put into place more regulations.

Some tour groups have vowed to stop using the horses altogether.

Despite the gains, both Migliavacca and Ash would like to see more done.

"I think the wheels are in motion," said Ash.  "But I don't think change has occurred yet." 

ABC15 contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office to see if there were any other investigation into animal cruelty among tribe members. We were told the office could not comment on its investigations. We also reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. We never heard back from officials in that office.

As far as the Havasupai Tribe, a spokesperson released this statement:

Earlier this week, the Havasupai Tribal Council discontinued third-party guide services to Havasupai Falls.  This is a temporary measure while the council works to enhance the current licensing process.

“The Tribal Council is doing this in order to preserve the campground and trails for the betterment of the tribe and the thousands of tourists that visit Havasupai Falls each year,” said Don E. Watahomigie, chairman of the Havasupai Tribe.

The new regulations, among other things, will address group size, permit fees and private pack-animal reservations that will ultimately require all reservations to be made and conformed through the tourism office.

“The Tribal Council anticipates this will be a temporary ban on third-party guide services and hopes to have the enhanced regulations in the hands of these operators as soon as possible,” said Watahomigie. “At present, this only impacts reservations made by third-party guide services.  No individual reservations are impacted.”

Havasupai Falls has long-been a popular destination for hikers.  The Havasupai people live near the Havasupai Falls in the Supai Village. The Havasupai people are the traditional guardians of the Grand Canyon.  Related to the Yuman, the Havasupai have from the beginning, inhabited the Grand Canyon and its environs.

The population for the Havasupai Tribe is approximately 640 people. The largest employer of the tribal members on the reservation is the tribe and the occupation for many of the tribal members is packing and working for tribal departments and enterprises.

NOTE: Certain photos that aired in this piece are from Elisabeth Larsen with Havasu Animal Advocates.  If you'd like more information about this group, please visit them on Facebook at