Friday, January 30, 2009

"Nobody's Horses"

Nobody’s Horses by Don Höglund

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2009)

The American story is one of exploration and conquest, of ideals and crimes against nature, of invention and exploitation. It is also a story of the greatness that human beings are capable of when facing a crisis. Nobody’s Horses examines these broad themes in the narrow context of a wild horse rescue operation carried out in 1994 and 1995. The horses in question were captives in a top secret weapons testing range, the very location where the first atomic bomb exploded, forever changing the nature of warfare and giving mankind the ability to annihilate life on earth.

Wild horses roamed free in North America in the Pleistocene era until 20,000 years ago, the time when humans first appeared in the Americas. Why these large land mammals went extinct in the Americas is unknown, but it was not until the Spanish conquistadors arrived that horses returned. In the course of exploration and conquest, stray horses lost their connection to humans and reverted to their natural, wild state. At one time, the wild horse population in North America was around 2 million. Now there are fewer than 25,000 wild horses with as many as 30,000 being held by the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, awaiting adoption, relocation, or export for slaughter.

Cattle ranchers have long considered wild horse bands to be a nuisance and have fenced off, with government support, most of what was once open range. Wild horses are constantly on the move looking for forage and water. Unlike cattle, equines can survive in arid landscapes due to their evolutionary adaptations. When wild horse populations exceed the capacity of the land they roam, the United States Bureau of Land Management thins the herds by rounding up horses into holding pens where they wait, sometimes for the rest of their natural lives, until alternative arrangements can be made. For many of these wild horses the temporary holding pens become permanent homes because the government has nowhere release them.

In the 1980s, Don Höglund, a veterinarian and horse trainer, helped establish the National Wild Horse Prison Inmate Program in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a way of preparing some of the captured horses for adoption. He understood that bringing outlaw horses and humans together could have a healing effect on both. While many felons have difficulty establishing trusting relationships with humans, they often bond with animals and in the course of training them, develop empathy and sensitivity to the needs of others. Anyone who has spent time with horses knows that trust cannot be forced or rushed and without trust, training will not happen. Through Dr. Höglund’s innovative program, broken men and wild horses learned to trust each other and as a result, many unwanted horses became adoptable and found good homes, and many prisoners found a path to redemption.

During his time overseeing the mustang prison program in Las Cruces, Dr. Höglund became aware of the wild horse bands inside the White Sands Missile Range. He would occasionally spot them as he drove along the high-security perimeter fence parallel to Route 54 between Tularosa and Carrizozo. Legend had it that these horses were descended from those belonging to some of the most notorious figures in wild west history including Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. White Sands encompasses what was once the most dreaded part of the Camino Real – the trail from Veracruz, Mexico, to Santa Fe, New Mexico – 100 miles of harsh desert road named the Jornada del Muerto, or Dead Man’s Road. This section of the Camino Real received its name because so many men died there, either from thirst or at the hands of bandits or hostile Native Americans. Once Mexico and the Native Americans were vanquished, and in spite of its unforgiving habitat, a number of settlers and ranchers called the area surrounding the Jornada del Muerto home. Cattle drivers moving herds between Texas and Colorado came through giving the area its rich history.

During World War II the United States government was racing to build the atomic bomb before another more dangerous nation did, and needed a vast, empty tract of land on which to test it. White Sands was the perfect place because of how remote and empty it was. In all the government took two million acres by right of eminent domain and required that the ninety-seven families then living there vacate quickly so testing could begin. The taking was done in the name of patriotism and defense of the nation, a hard argument to counter especially in a time of war, and so most ranchers accepted the condemned land price the government offered. Cattle were easily sold, but there was nowhere for the ranchers to take their horses during the relocation. The abandoned horses, left to fend for themselves, quickly reverted to their natural state.

On July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb exploded, generating heat four times as hot as the Sun’s interior and creating a flash of light that was visible for 250 miles. Across the 1940s and 50s, the Army fenced the perimeter of the range, trapping the horses inside and effectively making them property of the U. S. government. In spite of projectiles exploding around them for the better part of fifty years, the horses survived and, during wet years even thrived. Over time, four herds emerged with distinct characteristics and they were just as wild as their Mustang cousins, however because these animals were army property, they were not covered by any of the laws protecting wild horses and burros. This left the army in the difficult position of owning horses which were wild but not in the eyes of the law and, therefore, a potential liability.

By the 1980s, the horse population in the White Sands Missile Range began to exceed the land’s capacity and so the army began staging an annual round-up and auction. Unfortunately, many of the horses sold at auction went to slaughterhouses, rather than to farms or ranches and this provoked a huge public outcry, fueled by animal rights groups and horse enthusiasts alike. As more people became aware of the plight of the horses held captive on the missile range, then-Governor Garrey Carruthers recognized that bad press was damaging to the tourism industry in New Mexico and decided that the round-up and auction had to end. A number of ideas were batted around, including bringing some of the White Sands horses to the nearby prisons for inmates to rehabilitate, but nothing happened until 1994 when Patrick Morrow, the wildlife biologist assigned to White Sands, discovered a mass of dead and dying horses and orphaned foals at a depleted watering hole. The dead horses numbered 122, and this shocked the public into demanding action. Animal rights groups returned, along with the Humane Society of the United States. In response, the governor formed a task force to figure out how to prevent future horse deaths and decide the fate of the remaining animals on the White Sands Missile Range.

The United States Army wanted the horses removed from the range and the task force agreed that was best, but how would that be accomplished and where would the horses go? Who would be responsible for the animals once they were captured and how would they be transported? Who would pay the costs for the capture and transport? These were some of the questions the task force struggled with. One attempt to obtain federal funding for the project was derided by Senator John McCain as “pork”. No one, it seemed was willing to take responsibility for the horses and so, in an astute political move, the general overseeing White Sands, Jerry Laws, ordered that the horses be removed and took charge of doing so.

Once the effort had a leader, a number of key people signed on to move the horses. At the time, Dr. Höglund was involved with wild horses and burros in Nevada and had given up on rescuing the White Sands horses. A veterinarian in New Mexico, and close friend of Dr. Höglund’s, begged him to get involved to ensure the proper treatment and disposition of the horses. Nobody’s Horses: The Dramatic Rescue of the Wild Herd of White Sands is Don Höglund’s record of how the rescue happened, who was involved, as well as the history of the horses and the people of White Sands.

One of the main characters in the book, Les Galiland, is himself descended from one of the displaced ranching families and serves to illustrate why so many in the west have so much distrust and resentment of “government”. Staking claims on open range for cattle grazing is how much of the west was settled, but what the government so easily gave it sometimes takes back, as in the case of White Sands. In addition to shedding light on the western psyche, Nobody’s Horses explains the rise and fall of cowboy culture in America and how today’s cowboys no longer rely so much on horses. In fact, the methods used to round up the White Sands horses more resemble a military exercise than a scene from the old west.

This book discusses the paradox posed by taking environmentally sensitive land to test the most destructive force on earth. What Dr. Höglund does not do is rail against nuclear weapons and that is, I suppose, because if the United States had not been the first to develop, test, and deploy atomic bombs, another nation eventually would have. The author also does not vilify the United States government for displacing the ranchers of White Sands. He takes a balanced view of the trade-offs involved, accepting the world the way it is without pining for the past.

Nobody’s Horses is an inspiring book for the time we live in: people with different beliefs, agendas, political views, and histories came together to solve a difficult problem. The horses were safely removed from White Sands and most of them ended up in a better place. For the remaining wild horses in America, the future is less certain. Without horses humans could not have created the great civilizations which so clearly differentiate us from our simian cousins. This book reminds us of the debt we owe to those great animals on whose backs our world was built.

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