The audience for school projects doesn't typically include members of Congress. But a short film by three students at Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point is planned as part of a Washington, D.C., event early next year to promote passage of a federal bill that would ban the slaughter of horses.
Students Tyler Hersh, 17, of Absecon, Eric Klein, 16, of Cherry Hill, and Joe Parisi, 17, of Egg Harbor Township, spent four days last month with the Navajo Nation in Arizona, filming tribe members and their horses on behalf of the Animal Welfare Institute, or AWI, in Washington, D.C., which funded the trip.
Instructor David Von Roehm, who had worked with AWI before, went with them.
Hersh said their goal was to raise awareness of the Navajos' relationship with horses and efforts to stop the slaughter of horses for food in the United States. They filmed tribal members on a ride, and interviewed elders and the tribe's medicine man.
Klein said because they were in the Navajo Nation, they had to abide by their laws, and there were some things they were not allowed to photograph.
"They don't always like outsiders, especially with cameras," Parisi said. "And not everyone knew why we were there."
Hersh said a major challenge was the dust in the desert, which got into the equipment.
"You had to constantly clean the lenses," he said.
Parisi said he loved learning about the lifestyle and culture of the Navajos.
"The horse is really sacred to them," Hersh said.
A tribal elder in the film talks about how the Navajo communicates with his horse and sings to it.
The group tried to find some of the estimated 75,000 wild horses that live on the Navajo land but admit to having some difficulty, since not all areas were accessible to them.
Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs for AWI, said the institute has been fighting to ban horse slaughter in the United States for years. He said they have had success in delaying slaughterhouse operations, but the proposed Safeguard American Food Exports, or SAFE Act, would outright ban the slaughter of horses.
"It would eliminate the annual battle," Heyde said.
According to published reports, the president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, had supported the roundup and slaughter of some wild horses, citing the damage they cause. But other tribal elders opposed the move, and in October, Shelly withdrew his support and agreed to investigate other methods of managing feral horses.
The Charter Tech students have been compiling a five-minute video for the AWI, and will also prepare a 20-minute film as a class assignment.
Van Roehm said while the film focuses on the horses, he also wanted to show how they are also part of the Navajo culture.
"We wanted to show the spirit of the horse," he said. "I hope we shared that."
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