In this election year we have become more attuned to our rights and freedom. We argue and even kill to defend the freedom to bear arms, to vote, to engage in free speech. But those are concepts limited to human society. Freedom has a different meaning when you experience an animal in the wild. What happens when we observe another species in its natural habitat, just going about its business? For me, hunkering down the bunch grass to watch wild horses on protected lands in eastern Oregon was a spiritual awakening.
While researching the latest FBI Special Agent Ana Grey Mystery, Judas Horse, I contacted the media office in the Burns District of the Bureau of Land Management, asking if it were possible for an author to observe the mustangs in the wild. A generous "Yes" led to a trip to Oregon over spring break with my husband and daughter in search of all the locations for my book. On the list: a hazelnut farm, the Columbia River Gorge, a fish hatchery, Portland, and the mustangs. By this time I knew that my character, Special Agent Ana Grey, would go undercover to infiltrate a group called FAN ? Free Animals Now ? who appeared to be concerned about the welfare of e wild horses, but in fact were domestic terrorists with a doomsday agenda.
Believe it or not, your federal tax dollars are actually doing something good ? one tiny, life-affirming thing in a budget filled with bombs and bulldozers. The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1972 gave the BLM authority to manage and protect wild herds on the nation's 262 million acres of public rangelands. The idea is to preserve "living symbols" of our western heritage by conservation that includes gathering excess animals and placing them in adoptive homes. It is against the law to slaughter wild horses.
Finding the horses was a journey. We flew from Portland to Bend and drove several hours to Burns, to view the corrals where the herds are gathered by helicopter and given veterinary care. We found the only open Italian restaurant, then hustled across the high desert to the Hotel Diamond as darkness fell. It was a turn-of-the-century stop for sheepherders and ranchers, now filled with friendly birders who had come for the spring migrations of cranes and swans at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That night someone spotted a great horned owl outside the hotel. They kindly sent a photograph that is posted in our kitchen to this day.
The following morning it was hailing, snowing, and the sun was shining, all at once. We crossed the strange volcanic flats and rimrock in a BLM truck with Mark L. Armstrong, an affable and knowledgeable guide. The horses roam (obviously) so it would not be easy to find them in hundreds of acres. We did see plenty of cattle, though, mostly owned by multi-nationals companies getting a free ride on our public lands. After several hours we spotted some brown and white shapes near a reservoir. We got out of the truck and were instructed on how to approach ? crablike, close to the ground. And quietly.
I grew up in the Bronx. I had a parakeet. As the mom of a daughter determined to become a veterinarian, I'd lived with an Akita, a guinea pig, a mouse, two parakeets, two rats, frogs, a rescue Abyssinian cat, a Cardigan Welsh corgi, a rescue French Bulldog/terrier mix, and a bearded dragon named Spike. Mostly I tolerated the household pets. They were more of a nuisance than transcendent, leading to fights with neighbors over barking dogs (ours and theirs), and one horrendous incident where our cat was almost mauled to death by a mysterious creature the homeowners refused to acknowledge as their housekeeper's dog.
But these wild animals that grazed and played and communicated as we crouched low in the sage were unencumbered by human drama. The dynamics and bonding of the herd were terribly poignant. You can read all about it in Judas Horse. Here, let me just say there was an enormous, yet gentle, power in the natural interaction of that family of mustangs, whose bloodlines and history go back to the Spanish horse. They seemed to embody the basic goodness of the world, not because they were sentimentally beautiful (which they were), but as expressions of creation beyond our reach. Their pure existence is what I mean by freedom. Not the freedom 'to do' anything, but the freedom of every species to be.
It occurred to me also that the obstruction of that freedom ? especially by arbitrary, commercial or cynical means ? is a crime. And I wanted to do something about it. Fortunately, I discovered Return to Freedom, American Wild Horse Sanctuary, a non-profit outside of Santa Barbara, California that was founded by Neda DeMayo with the goal of protecting our remaining wild horses through sanctuary, conservation and education. They provide safe haven for more than 200 wild horses and are working to create a historical land trust that would protect them from special interests. It is a good and satisfying organization to support.
This morning, before writing this, I sat for a while in the yard with the dogs. Pablo, the rescue pooch, rested in my lap. Wynk, the corgi, dozed nearby. The wind was up. I watched the tops of the bamboo. We weren't fighting for anything or lobbying for anything. But it was such freedom.