A couple days a month, I’m a muckraker at the local horse rescue in the foothills here in Central California. Each critter has his/her own story, always heartrending and inspiring both. Recently, a mommy horse from Nevada allegedly rescued from a slaughterhouse gave birth to a little colt at the comfortable, lovely sanctuary.
Although I’ll feature more of “our” horses in a future blog, I couldn’t resist showing you baby Jasper and his mama. And the rescue of horses brought to mind something I’d seen on a History Channel program long ago, about a woman fighting to preserve and protect the wild horses and burros on the American plains. I couldn’t remember the rescuer’s name. Mustang Sally stuck in my mind. But researching her, I found out she was “Wild Horse Annie”, otherwise known as Velma Johnston.
Truth is, the moniker “Wild Horse Annie” was given to her as a pejorative by men who thought her cause amusing, if not silly. But she wore it as a badge of courage.
Born in Washoe, Nevada, in 1912, Velma Bronn grew up on her parents’ “Lazy Double Heart Ranch”. Here she learned all about the humane treatment of horses and training them by gentle methods. A childhood bout of polio had her in a body cast for six months and left her with some disfigurements that caused cruelty from her schoolmates. This led her to concentrate on studies and the animals in her life.
After her marriage to Charles Johnston, she and her husband took over the operation of her family ranch, later turning it into a “dude” ranch for children. And Velma took a job as a secretary for an insurance company.
At this time, no humane laws protected the herds of wild horses descended from the horses and burros left behind by explorers, conquistadors, miners, and pioneers. Most ended up slaughtered for pet foods, and the capture methods were horrific. Hard to write, but many were chased by airplanes or trucks until they collapsed from exhaustion, nostrils then wired shut, necks tied to truck tires while the vehicle continued its chase. After that horror, animals were packed so tightly in truck beds they couldn’t move, or fell and were trampled.
Velma was to write that she knew airplanes were used to capture the mustangs, but the practice didn’t touch her directly until 1950, when her ignorance was jarred. While driving to work one day, she watched blood dripping from the truck in front of her and followed it to a rendering plant. Outraged and sickened by what she saw, especially the suffering and death of a year-old foal, Velma vowed to do something to keep this horror from happening again.
Her efforts got her Nevada county to pass a ban on the aircraft capture in 1952, and to pass laws that prevented round up by vehicles on private property. Nonetheless, federal lands were exempt…and 80% of Nevada was federal land. But Velma continued her fight. On 8 September 1959, her efforts resulted in the federal law prohibiting the hunting and capture of horses on state land. Public Law 86-234 became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act.
In 1971, under Velma’s influence, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which banned capture, injury or disturbances of wild horses and burros, and for their transfer to suitable areas when populations became too large.
Before her death from cancer in 1977 at age 65, Velma had been featured in Time magazine, and is said to have inspired Marilyn Monroe’s’ character in Arthur Miller’s 1961 Western, The Misfits. Appearing as herself, Velma starred alongside Lloyd Bridges and Dina Merrill in the 1973 Western, Running Wild.
Of course there are still “gathers” (round-ups) and controversy, mismanagement and claims of mistreatment, but that’s something for another blog, another day.
For today, I just loved learning about another strong Woman of the West.