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Wild Horses Couldnt Drag Her Away

Madeleine Pickens

Madeleine Pickens

Posted on July 12, 2011

It should come as no surprise that Madeleine Pickens is once again in the spotlight for her unwavering efforts to fight for animals in need. Rescues have long been her crusade, whether airlifting homeless dogs and cats to safety after the Katrina disaster or saving horses headed for slaughter. She is now leading a fight to save the wild horses of the American West.

The daughter of a British father and Lebanese mother, Pickens grew up watching old westerns, and was captivated by tales of cowboys and Indians, John Wayne and wild horses. Years later, after emigrating from Iraq to the United States, Pickens saw the mustangs for herself. “The first time that you fly over and you see a herd of wild horses, it was life changing for me,” she recalls, “to see magnificent horses running free that have never been touched by mankind, totally free on the range.”

Pickens is now hard at work, creating Mustang Monument, a proposed eco-sanctuary in Nevada. This horse haven is desperately needed, she explains, because public lands set aside for wild horses by an act of Congress in 1971 have been steadily taken away through cattle grazing, mining, and urbanization.

The federal Bureau of Land Management has rounded up tens of thousands of horses from public lands, contending the wild horse population is exploding, stretching resources, and crowding out other animals. The government is warehousing the horses in both short and long-term holding at taxpayer expense. According to Pickens, there are fewer than 30,000 wild horses now left on the range.

In her efforts to protect them, Pickens has taken on powerful players in the cattle industry who regard the herds of horses as invasive “desert critters” that compete with cattle for food and water. “They [the cattlemen] will walk up and say, “Madeleine, they are just pests of the desert, they have no rights here. They’re feral.” I ask you, “who is more feral, the wild horse that has been here hundreds of years or the white man — we came here after the horse,” she says with a laugh. “I say we’re feral.”

Madeleine Pickens
Madeleine Pickens proudly wearing her SAM Colorguard uniform

But Pickens also has a powerful ally in the American Humane Society, whose president Wayne Pacelle was in Rancho Santa Fe recently to promote his book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them. “I agree with her entirely,” says Pacelle. “I think Madeleine has galvanized a national movement to help the wild horse. She’s put it front and center in the American consciousness, that we need to preserve these horses and stop the inhumane round-ups and removals of thousands of animals every year from our public lands.”

Pickens is putting her money where her passion is, having bought up 18,500 acres in Nevada for her eco-sanctuary, and lobbying the federal government to convert an additional 550,000 acres of public land from cattle to horse grazing. More than 500 horses from the Paiute Nation, once headed for slaughter, have begun arriving at the sanctuary.

It also will be home for highly trained mustangs, adopted by Pickens, who are veterans of the Rose Bowl Parade, and who will appear this summer on Opening Day at the Del Mar Race Track. Pickens says the sanctuary will include an education center, along with cabins, teepees, and campfires, where Americans and tourists from around the world can learn about Native American history and the iconic mustangs, recognized by Congress as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

Pacelle says Pickens’ plan is on the right track, a piece of a “larger mosaic” that should include stopping the government round-ups, reducing wild horse fertility rates, and recognizing that the horse has a rightful place on public lands. “It’s what I call the new humane economy,” he says. “We need to build enterprise and businesses that value animals and generate economic activity. That’s what this will do. It’s good for animals, but it can become a tourist destination, and it can generate awareness and income.”

When asked whether her opponents may have met their match, Pickens compares herself to Oliver, her beloved Jack Russell terrier, who died recently at the age of 18. “I always say to people, ‘If someone is going to take you on, find out what their dog is.'” Anybody who knows anything about Jack Russells knows they don’t give up. They grab hold of your ankle and they keep pulling and tugging,” she says. “I’m not going to give up.” savingamericasmustangs.org   Andrea Naversen

Madeleine Pickens
Madeleine Pickens feeding her adopted horses at the Mesa Vista Ranch in Pampa

Photography by Michael Partenio


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