Horses of a Different Color: The Quagga as the New Appaloosa

Horses of a Different Color: The Quagga as the New Appaloosa

CNN reported that a team of scientists at Cape Town University has undertaken to bring back an animal killed off a hundred years ago by European settlers overhunting to extinction, the quagga. The quagga appears to be the front end of a zebra attached to the rear end of a brown horse.

DNA testing on quagga skins showed the quagga to be a subspecies of zebra, and the Quagga Project is bringing forth recessive genes by selectively breeding zebras to recreate the subspecies. Critics of the attempt to reestablish the quagga range from the objection to “playing God” to speculation that the quagga may have exhibited behavioral differences not knowable from DNA, and so the Quagga Project is merely breeding funny-looking zebras.

The “playing God” argument gets no traction, since it was human beings who caused the quagga to disappear in the first place. Having some respect for the argument that not everything is being reassembled, the new animals are being called “Rau quaggas” after one of the originators of the project, Reinhold Rau.

Only six Rau quaggas exist at this time. When the population reaches 50, they will be relocated to a nature preserve of their own. The hope is that the herd will be a “genetic bank” like the small herd of American bison that survived the extinction of the buffalo as a tactic in the Indian Wars.

The killing of animals as warfare against Indians wasn’t just bison. There was the mass killing of the Kiowa and Comanche horses at Palo Duro Canyon. That bit of ugliness passed into both Comanche and Kiowa tribal lore as a great calamity, but it did not threaten horses with extinction generally. After all, the soldiers who did the killing were mounted.

However, there is a breed of horse developed by the Nez Perce that had to be brought back from the brink of extinction, like the quagga, by breeding programs begun in the nick of time.

The U.S. cavalry caught the Nez Perce just before they reached the Canadian border and confiscated all of their horses, thought to represent most of the appaloosas in existence. Animals of the breed identified with the Nez Perce had been considered first-rate horses, agile and hardy, ever since they were “discovered” by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Colonel Nelson Miles commanded the troops who caught the Nez Perce, who had been slowed by the warriors’ insistence on protecting the noncombatants. Miles ended a heroic 1,400-mile armed withdrawal by Nez Perce cavalry, who were outnumbered and outgunned.

A tiny number of Nez Perce, under White Bird, did escape the last battle and joined Sitting Bull in Canada. The majority of the refugees, under Hinmatóowyalahtq?it (Chief Joseph to the colonists), were captured.

Miles sold a few of the highly prized appaloosas and killed the rest, and that was thought to be the end of the outstanding breed. However, the Nez Perce had left a small remnant herd of appaloosas in the Wallowa Valley before their epic run for Canada. Many others were in the hands of settlers, who had paid over $500 for appaloosas when ordinary horses went for $15.

The organized effort to bring back appaloosas was not started until 1938 and was successful, although the original breeding by the Nez Perce is a historical curiosity in our time. The horse breeders responsible for appaloosas in the first place never profited from their achievement.

Appaloosa horses almost vanished from the earth because they were the favored mounts of the Nez Perce cavalry that had been running circles around the stolid horses favored by the U.S. Army. Quagga used to exist in vast herds on the veldts of Southern Africa but were extinguished by nothing more than the joy of killing.

If bringing back the quagga or bringing back the appaloosa amounted to “playing God,” what about killing them off in the first place?

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