Waiting for Freedom

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I want to preface this article with a disclaimer.  I’m not stating anything that is not already known or considered by the respective legal teams, and all content is MY PERSONAL OPINION, which is still my constitutional right  to express. 

I’ve been watching the banter about the Alto herd for some time, in both Facebook  groups,  and had to finally step away because it had become so convoluted and complex, at times outright hostile.  Where I draw the line and feel I need to speak out is when good people in this community become targets.

About two years ago, when the mayor in Roswell banned all rescues from animal control and they started euthanizing 10 per day, those of us who were working to give the impounded animals a chance at life launched a national campaign.  His office was flooded and he was forced to rescind his decision.  That was the good part of social media . . . when it comes to animal welfare, pleas for help go viral very quickly.  The bad and unanticipated result, was that it also drew in all the extremists that give “animal advocacy” a bad name . . .  PETA is only one example of an advocacy group gone very wrong.   These groups and individuals continued to ‘hang on’ and cause divisiveness among those who were actually physically there and working for reform.  They had never been to the state, let alone the community, but they insisted on “directing” and causing havoc.

To some extent, I see a similar scenario with our community’s efforts with the Alto horse herd, and sadly they have also drawn in some members of the community and caused a major rift.  The Roswell animals did not then, and even today, do not have the community support  that the Alto horses have.  There is a lot more damage that can be done to everything we hold dear in our community unless we step back a little, get ourselves out of the way, and evaluate priorities.  For the sake of our horses, we may need to “adjust” our dream, not give up on it, but fine tune what we want as an outcome.

These are the key points in a nutshell, as I see them:

THE “WILD” LABEL . . . seems to be the major issue at hand, and what the legal battle is about.

A friend of mine first told me about the Alto herd a couple of years ago, so after the Little Bear fire, I went looking for them for the sake of photos (I was writing for Vamanos at that time).

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It is truly breathtaking to see them move quietly through the forest . They were grazing in the little patches of meadow in a residential area . . .  one of the resident dogs in the area chose to happily accompany me as I was trying not to bother the herd too much.  He was quite comfortable with and respectful of the herd.

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The stallion watched me out of the corner of his eye, and if I approached, he would silently signal the herd to move away.  Most of the mares stayed closer to him, except for one.   She walked right up to me, checked out the camera and sniffed around my jacket .     I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that I’m some magical “horse whisperer” and this “wild” horse miraculously sought me out.   She had belonged to someone once upon a time and remembered . . . especially that humans carry treats in their pockets.   I’m not saying this is true for all of them, but in this mare’s case, I believe it was so.  I don’t know if she is still with this herd.

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When we were plunged into a drought a few years ago, the cost of hay had skyrocketed.  Ranchers were shipping their cattle off and horse owners were trying to get rid of their livestock because they couldn’t afford them anymore.  As a last resort, they simply opened their gates and let them go.  In hard times, it’s the animals who suffer . . . it’s not just dogs and cats that get “dumped.”

You don’t have to be a “wild horse expert” to recognize the difference . . . you just have to be observant.  There’s a distinct look in a wild animal’s eye, especially a horse, when they see a human.  It’s one of caution and lack of recognition . . . “I see you, but keep your distance, otherwise I’ll run.”

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Everyone in this community, whether local or part time, has had a part in the fate of these horses.  Despite the warnings, they have fed them not only hay, but grain and all kinds of ‘snacks’.  These horses were clearly not starving, but they knew what grain was and because of this, it was easy to “bait” them, and this is in no way a defense of the person who penned them and started this mess.  We humans simply do not respect the sanctity of wildness.  That’s why people fall or are dragged into wild animal enclosures . . . they just had to reach out and touch, and then the animal is vilified and/or destroyed, all because of  human stupidity.

Even now, the group that has custody of the herd is doing their best to limit human interaction to preserve whatever “wildness” is left in them, yet some people insist on going there and feeding treats and petting them.  Why is it that when it comes to wild animals, we just can’t keep our hands off them?

THE “NINE SIGNERS” . . . put everything on the line to accept liability for this herd so that they could be returned home, and I’m including the person who donated the property in this.  They did this because the community wanted the horses back.   They have nothing to gain and everything to lose . . . it is one of the most selfless acts I’ve seen in all of this.  Yet, they have been accused of all sorts of ulterior motives.  They are following a legal agreement and need to be thanked and their wishes and decisions respected.  They certainly have my personal admiration and gratitude.

MANAGEMENT OF THE HERD (current and future) . . . the big, dirty word and the one causing so much controversy because foals had to be weaned from their mares who are getting ready to foal. The argument is that “they take care of this in the wild themselves.”

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Well, being in a paddock is NOT IN THE WILD!   These horses are in close quarters . . . there is no place to “send”  the weanlings, and unless you have been present at a “horse birthing” and understand how important that colostrum is, and how fragile a newborn is, you have no business questioning this decision.   Don’t think for a minute that if anything  is “mismanaged” and the result is death or injury, human or equine, that the livestock board is not going to swoop in and haul the herd away, AGAIN.  The precautions being taken by the custodial group are for the sake of the herd, not to be secretive or to keep the community away.  I cannot stress enough that everything they, we, are doing with this herd is being watched for any kind of “infractions.”   That is the reality right now.

If we are lucky enough to have the herd released in the wild,  whatever is left of “wild” in this community,  they will still have to be “managed.”  Here’s a sad tale of wild horses who were rescued from the missile range (White Sands) and transported to a refuge in South Dakota.  The woman in charge believed that the herd would “manage” itself  by not procreating when resources were scarce.  It was a false and tragic assumption on her part.  The herds she brought in mushroomed from 200 to 800 within a 2 year period, and when the food ran out (pasture and lack of funds for hay) many of them starved.  Starvation is how the herd “managed” itself, not by abstinence.   Once again, human stupidity and arrogance cost lives.  You only need to observe 2 horses together to figure out that the stronger will push the weaker one away from food.

ATTENDING VETERINARIAN . . . has come under attack mostly from non-local advocates. We’re fortunate in this community to have some outstanding veterinarians and we are very protective of them, especially  Dr. Becky Washburn-Brown, who has been referred to as a “country vet,” as if it’s a bad thing.  Some are requesting second opinions by a “wild horse veterinarian.”

First of all, while she does not flaunt her credentials and expertise, her skills as a veterinarian with domestic and wild animals is extraordinarily broad . . . she is respected and loved by this community, and recognized statewide, and probably nationally, I’m sure (although she never “brags.”)

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She ranks at the top of my list of heroes, personal and professional, not only because  she has seen me and my animals through many tough circumstances, but because regardless of circumstances, she never forgets that her first responsibility is to the animal.  She is also fearless in standing up for principles and for the welfare of animals.  Her heart and her compassion are truly unmatched, and I, as well as many others,  could write volumes about her accomplishments and her attributes.   I only wish she were allowed to treat humans, because if I were ill,  I would trust her over any “doctor of humans.”

In short, if you malign or give Dr. Becky any kind of grief, we will be about as “unhappy” with you as we are with the person who baited and trapped the horses.     Ethically and professionally, she only has to answer to the person(s) who asked for her services and who are responsible for the care of the horses, and fortunately they are wise enough to trust her judgment.

She could have declined caring for them, but she loves this community and most importantly,  the welfare and safety of the horses are her primary concern.  So she has placed  herself  “in the middle of this drama and controversy” to help animals who are really not being heard.   In my opinion, she is the only one at this point who actually knows what the horses need and what is best for them, because she understands animal, especially equine,  behavior, and because she can set emotions aside and be objective . . . something that most of the involved people are unable to do.

FUTURE “FREEDOMS” . . . the ASPCA refers to “freedoms” for animals. I think if our Alto horses, or any horse for that matter,  could “verbalize” what they want, it would be “freedom from pain and fear.”

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Unless they are truly wild, and I mean they have grown up without human interaction, where they live is not important, as long as they feel safe.   A truly wild horse will pace frantically when initially confined because they sense danger.  It takes time and patience to “tame” them, and sometimes they cannot ever be tamed.

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Our Alto horses right now are free from pain and fear.  And maybe that needs to be the focus, instead of “free to run wild,”   because truth be told, the legal outcome may be “up in the air” for some time, and can this community sustain the legal fees that are required to continue this court battle, especially if appeals are involved, and at the same time provide the care that this herd requires?

There are legal nuances involved in this case and most of us, including myself,  have not been privy to them.   We were repeatedly told in the beginning, that the livestock board broke the law by impounding them in the first place, but never given which law . . .  references were made to the Placitas herd.  Well, we found out later that the herd doesn’t exist anymore.  I doubt very seriously that the attorney general would have assigned an attorney to the livestock board if they had broken the law, and again, this is in no way a defense of the actions of the livestock board.

The plight of wild horses is a cause that is near and dear to Robert Redford, and many (including myself) sent emails to him, but as far as I know,  he never responded.

Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer

My guess is that he has a legal team that looks into these matters, and apparently there is “something” we are missing that is possibly not in favor of the horses being declared “wild.”

Initially, I wanted to see the horses returned to roam free in Alto again, and I would still want that under the right circumstances.  But since they’ve become celebrities and have now been touted as a tourist attraction for the area,  people will be visiting just to see them, and once again we’ll be faced with “human interference”,  because let’s face it, in general, humans don’t follow directions or respect nature.

The black bears in Yellowstone are a prime example.  By feeding them, despite warnings,  the tourists turned the black bear population into beggars.

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I personally  witnessed lines of cars full of tourists, handing food (marshmallows and chips) to the bears who went from vehicle to vehicle.  Everybody at that time thought “how cute,” but this “entertainment” had a long-term deadly effect. The bears  stopped foraging for food that was “good” for them, some lost a taste for it while others never learned how,  and many starved to death.

So what is the future for our beloved horses?

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I would personally love to turn back the clock and wish that they had never been baited, penned and  “abducted;”   but this act has forever changed the trajectory of their lives, and we need to get our heads out of the clouds, stop fighting among ourselves, and look at sensible alternatives if we don’t get what we want.

The writing was on the wall two years ago, with the “Rocket Star incident.”   Even if we are fortunate enough to have them declared “wild,” where would they be safe?  If they wander onto tribal land, they can be rounded up and hauled off to slaughter, and this does happen, and according to witnesses is horrific.  Tribal sovereignity is not going to recognize any “label” of  protection.

If they continue to roam in Alto,  an area that continues to grow with many of the large parcels of land  being fenced off  thereby limiting their grazing areas, and with the traffic on highway 48 getting increasingly busier and faster,   there is an increased probability of one of them being hit by a vehicle.  Could we all live with our decision to “set them free”  as we listen to the screaming of a horse in excruciating pain and terror because he cannot get up . . . the worst fate possible for an animal that relies on flight as a defense ?

We all have this utopian image of horses galloping in freedom across the lush green prairies and rich forest meadow, when the truth is that our wild, open spaces are rapidly disappearing.   Our horses are facing the same depletion of habitat as every other species everywhere in the world.  It just finally caught up to us here in Lincoln County.   We humans  should have been more considerate of the planet and other species before the world population of humans exploded to 7 billion.

A very large part of the community loves the herds of horses that are allowed to roam the area.  But I think we need to accept the fact that there is also a part of the community that finds them a nuisance because  horses  have no respect for boundaries or fences, and in the case of the Alto herd, no fear of humans.   By being “protected” under the label of “wild,”  it would make baiting and penning them against the law,  but thanks to humans, these horses know the taste of grain, and that makes them susceptible to being poisoned.

I fell in love with this community a long time ago and have called this home for 24 years.  I accept and am grateful for the good, and try to help where I can for the “not so good.”  Ruidoso/Alto is a resort area surrounded by national forest, tribal lands and ranches.   We have real, working cowboys (and cowgirls) who aspire to traditional values . . .  it’s more than once that a stranger helped me load something into my truck because he noticed I needed help.  They still tip their hats to ladies and hold the door open for anyone behind them.   Despite the bitterness and ferocity in this political climate, we are able to remain civil to one another, even when we pretty well know which is our candidate of choice.  No matter what was going on in the rest of the world, I have always felt safe and comfortable that somehow we, in this community, were immune.  I don’t want us to lose that feeling of ‘sanctuary.’

I hope that people in both “camps” read this with an open mind and understand that my words are not meant to be negative, and maybe some anxiety will be soothed so that we can keep moving forward and do what is best for our Alto herd, whether they are declared wild or not.  When it comes to our animals, what we think we want for them is not always what is best for them.

This community banded together and accomplished the nearly impossible . . . stopped the auction of our horses and got them back home.  Let’s not be so foolish as to define success as only one outcome and refuse to see viable alternatives.

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God bless us all, especially the animals who were entrusted to us.

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