Anderijn Peeters will never forget the first time she saw the animals.
When she arrived at the Dutch nature reserve just miles from Amsterdam last winter, dozens of gaunt horses and cows slowly wandered toward her behind a tall fence, looking for food.
The hungry animals had already eaten the grass down into barren gray patches of dirt, and stripped the bark from all the trees within reach.
They looked like walking skeletons.
“They were starved to death,” Peeters, a horse trainer and animal advocate living in Holland, told The Dodo. “Their ribs and bones were showing. The earth was gray and dusty. Everything had been ripped off the trees. It looked like an enormous bomb had gone off.”
They were just a few of the 5,230 animals kept on the Oostvaardersplassen last winter, a 21-square-mile artificial reserve created by the Dutch government in an attempt to rewild the land. Small populations of deer, cattle and horses were introduced to the rolling acres in the 1990s, and, originally, the animals roamed freely and the park was thriving.
But with no natural predators inside to control the population, due to the high fence surrounding the park, the land has gradually become overpopulated and overgrazed over the years — and last winter, more than half of the reserve’s animals starved to death as a result.
Yet the government stood by its plan, culling a few animals they deemed too far gone and fining anyone caught trying to feed the rest of them. Peeters and other local advocates did it anyway.
“When a fence is put around animals, someone needs to care for them,” Peeters said. “It’s simple. Animals who are truly wild are not put behind a fence. If that were the case, they would be able to go elsewhere to find their own food.”
Annemieke van Straaten
Often in the middle of the night, Peeters would join her feeding group to toss hay bales over the fences to the animals.
The freezing winter nights were especially gruelling, but they were hopeful it might save at least some of them.
“The horses and cattle are breeds very close to the wild species,” Peeters said. “The cattle especially are said to be aggressive and dangerous. But when we pull our cars in, they know who we are. They walk right up to us with their babies to get their hay.”
Now that it’s spring, the animals are at less of a risk for a few months — but despite the growing grass, and activists’ efforts to continue feedings, dead animals are a common sight.
Many of the animals are still visibly malnourished, sick or injured. When rangers deem an animal to be too starved to survive, they will shoot it — sometimes even in front of tourists taking photos of the animals.
Warning: Graphic images below
Annemieke van Straaten
“One day a ranger saw a deer who was lying down in a bit of brush chewing and he decided she was too skinny,” Peeters said. “He shot her in front of about 20 people. People at the fence started yelling out to him about 10 minutes later that she was still alive. He had took a wrong shot and didn’t go over to check if she was dead. He shot her twice more later to finally kill her.”
Activists have also regularly stumbled upon skinny animals floating dead in water-filled ditches, or almost fully decomposed in the open air. Skulls and bones often litter the area as well — but the rangers and outside companies are said to do cleanup jobs to avoid people stumbling upon the bodies during hikes or guided tours.
“You get pulled by a tractor [on the guided tours] and are told how great it is there,” Peeters said. “Where they don’t take you is where it’s carcass after carcass. Dead animals just sitting around. They clean it up or will avoid taking you near where they know there are bodies. The rangers will say, ‘Isn’t it so wonderful these animals are in the wild and can choose their own mate?’ Yes, but they don’t have anything to eat.”
The harrowing images of the animals that activists continue to publicize have created a major outcry among not only local, but international animal advocates. Last month, renowned primatologist and animal welfare advocate Jane Goodall wrote an open letter to the country’s government to speak out against the animals’ grave situation on the reserve.
In addition to requesting proper feeding protocols, Goodall called on the government-regulated reserve to create a sterilization program that would limit the population from growing further.
«I can hardly believe that this happens in a civilized country,» she wrote. “These are not native animals — they were introduced here and put behind a fence. If they are left without food, they must be fed. There is no excuse to continue with a policy of nonintervention if it leads to gruesome suffering.”
Dutch groups such as the Cynthia and Annemieke Foundation have led the fight locally by funding media campaigns that spread awareness about the animals’ plight and push for intervention by the government, with the help of an attorney.
Peeters and around 100 other members of the feeding groups continue to feed and check on the animals daily. Due to public pressure, the local government ordered the park rangers this spring to start feeding the animals for a short time. However, feeding stations were closed in early May, Peeters said.
“Continuing to create more pressure is essentially the only thing the government will listen to,” Peeters said. “If there is a public outcry all over the world, they might say, ‘OK, we need to help or get these animals out of here …’ A horse sanctuary in Spain and multiple local residents have already come forward asking to take in some animals.”
While the animals are currently holding on thanks to the feeding groups’ hay and whatever grass they can find, it’s only a matter of months before they will meet the same brutal fate as last winter.
This time, Peeters and others aim to feed the animals much more prior to winter to help them build up fat reserves that might put them at an advantage. But they hope that, by then, the government will have come to a solution for the animals.
“I can assure you there are a hell of a lot of people who don’t want to spend their winters out at 3 o’clock in the morning throwing hay over those fences,” Peeters said. “We will do it again, but we can’t let this be the only way. Something else needs to be done.”