All the Pretty Horses Must Die

    (Originally published at the Daily Beast)

    On the day I visited the wild horses of Onaqui, in northern Utah near the Nevada border, the night had been very cold, but when the sun hit noon and bathed the desert, they were relaxed enough to play. A bachelor male masturbated by slapping his penis against his belly, and two other males saw this and joined in. A black stallion rose up on hind legs and mounted a cream mare, one of the ladies in his band, who turned to snap at him when he was done. Elsewhere, the males not pleasuring themselves grunted and squealed and whinnied and jerked, vying for status. A paint stud fought with a rival roan, kicking the roan in the face with a thudding blow, drawing a trickle of blood.

    The band stallions, with ears back and heads low, chased off the itinerant males who dared approach their harems. The stallions, covetous, herded the mares away, moving them in brief coursing waves of horseflesh across the steppe, and when the scheming males were scattered and the stallions had calmed down, the mares rolled in the grass and the dust. Everywhere there was sparring and fighting, neighing and whinnying and sex and rolling, followed by brief naps, and the day was windless, balmy for November, without a cloud.

    This was a herd with room to move and enough grass to eat and water to drink. That it was being treated with a degree of respect was due in no small part to the work of Gus Warr, a wild horse specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior, which oversees horses that range on the public lands. Warr had implemented an experimental fertility control program in the Onaqui herd, because otherwise the animals, without predators to control their numbers, would overpopulate and wreck the ecosystems of the Utah desert.

    The program involved darting the animals with a contraceptive called PZP. At Onaqui, I watched Warr’s employees dart mares using air-powered blow guns. The mares jumped as if stung by a bee, the dart fell out, the shooter went to retrieve it. That was the extent of the program. It cost about $24 a dose, and the typical mare, otherwise going about her business—PZP is non-hormonal, an immunocontraceptive, and does not affect behavior—wouldn’t be able to conceive for a year. Since the program began in 2015, the Onaqui population had stabilized.

    In Nevada, Warr’s colleagues at BLM had dismissed fertility control as a political and practical impossibility and taken a brutish approach to wild horses. The animals, once they had expanded to an unacceptable number in their selected “herd management areas,” were periodically rounded-up, forced into tractor trailers, and trucked across the desert to holding facilities from which they would likely never leave.

    I watched a series of videos of round-ups in Nevada taken by a horse advocate named Laura Leigh, who runs a nonprofit in Reno called Wild Horse Education. The animals were chased by helicopters, forced into corrals, sorted. One horse was smashed in the ass with the skids of the helicopter. Another, panicked by the relentless pursuit, crashed into a barbed wire fence. A foal was chased until its hooves fell off (it later died). The wranglers hired by the BLM kicked the corralled horses with their boots and shocked them with electric prods.

    Leigh was so moved by the sight of that foal that had lost its hooves that she did something which, for her at the time, was out of character. In 2010, she filed a lawsuit in federal court to protest the violence and demand its end. When she saw her name on the final draft of the complaint, she vomited. Her father had been a cop, her grandfather had been a soldier in two wars. Her family, conservative, law-and-order types, weren’t the kind of people who litigate against the U.S. government. She spent five years on that case, and in 2015 she won. The BLM was now required for the first time—on paper at least—to adopt humane handling policies in its round-ups.

    It was Leigh who had invited me to Onaqui. “Healthy behavior, just beautiful,” she said as we stood amid the herd. “Happy and free. Fucking and fighting.” Leigh is 49, but looks younger. She has long flaming-red hair and a habit of talking fast, lapsing into a New Jersey accent, a jarring accent in the American West.

    Her quick mind probably had something to do with her success in court. Since founding Wild Horse Education in 2011, she had filed more than a dozen successful lawsuits against the Department of the Interior and the state of Nevada over wild horse policies, including a landmark First Amendment case that forced the federal government to open wild horse round-ups to press access. A federal judge in 2013 declared her “the most knowledgeable journalist on wild horses in the world.” In a single year, she logged 112,000 miles on her truck crisscrossing western states to document round-ups. The Nevada Historical Society was so impressed they asked to paint her portrait, which was hung in 2016 in the society’s museum in Reno.

    Leigh admitted it was a kind of therapy to be with a herd that wasn’t persecuted. She had been through a lot in her life. She had spent her teens in a New Jersey ghetto, among gangs and bloodshed, the Irish and Italians at each other’s throats. When she was 26, her husband shot her in the stomach. There was a second marriage from which she escaped homeless and broke. There were two children she raised alone. For a while she was a professional body-builder. She cage-danced at discos. She appeared in Penthouse and Muscle, modeled shoes for Donna Karan, posed for a Marvel Comics artist as the musculature of Red Sonja. There was a car accident at 34 that left her, for several seconds, clinically dead. And then breast cancer a few years later, after she moved to Nevada. She thought it ironic to be stricken in Nevada, the place that with its horses had drawn her out of the mess of life back East.

    When I first contacted her in 2015, she had undergone the last of eight surgeries. For a while her breast had been like a bowling ball, and she had been taking her chemo treatments while camping in the back of a pick-up truck. When I met her at Onaqui in 2016, she was cancer-free for the first time in a long time. “It’s been the best year of my life,” she said. “I’m alive and I’m with the horses.”

    The next day we drove to Nevada, which has the largest number of wild horses of any state—about 70 percent of the U.S. total—and which is now at the forefront of plans for a mass horse slaughter under Donald Trump.

    Read the rest at the Daily Beast…

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