I write about wild horses. I write an awful lot about wild horses. And it’s not just because I cherish the animals or admire all that they have done through the centuries to ease our burden here in North America. I sometimes get grief about my focus upon the nation’s herds, and I know that many people who don’t “get” horses, or who have never been near a horse, cannot fathom the depth of passion the animals engender among their human supporters. What can I say? I can’t help it and I won’t stop.
I write about wild horses for many of the same reasons that I write about mentally ill prisoners who are abused in their cells or about indigent defendants who cannot afford a lawyer or anyone else who has a voice, and rights, but who cannot be properly heard or who cannot have those rights acknowledged. Mordecai Richler, the late, great Canadian writer, long ago captured the essence of what I try to do with all my writing: “The novelist’s primary moral responsibility is to be the loser’s advocate,” he said. The actor Ricky Gervais said pretty much the same thing the other day, without the literary flair, when he said: “Animals don’t have a voice. But I do.”
I have a voice and I’ve chosen to speak out for these horses, which are being rounded up by the tens of thousands from our public and private lands and sent to holding pens in the Midwest -- or sold into slaughter even though that is against the law. The government and the ranchers say these roundups must happen because there is no room for the herds, or because they graze too heavily upon the land, but ample evidence exists suggesting that this simply isn’t so. The truth is that there is plenty of room out West for these horses and there are plenty of ways in which the herds may be properly managed to ensure their survival without forcing them into cruel conditions or slaughter.
Why that isn’t happening is a story everyone ought to care about. So I write about wild horses because I think their treatment over the past four decades, since the passage of the federal law designed to protect them, reveals a great deal about American politics and the nature of the bureaucratic state. The Interior Department, which has stewardship over the herds, is little more than a straw man for the industries it is supposed to regulate. And those industries, which receive enormous federal benefits in the form of welfare ranching, and which in turn send millions of dollars and boatloads of lobbyists to Washington, want the horses off the public lands no matter what anyone else says.
I write about wild horses because last year the National Academies of Science issued a report scathing in its criticism of the Bureau of Land Management’s scientific approach to the herds. Before the report was issued, federal officials assured advocates that its conclusions would be respected (or at least publicly discussed). But it’s been seven months now since the report was issued and federal officials have done almost nothing about it. That’s just not unjust to the horses, and unfair to their human advocates, and perhaps a violation of federal law, it’s also terrible policy, as a general rule, for bureaucrats to ignore the findings of a report they themselves commissioned and paid for.
I write about wild horses because the last Secretary of the Interior was a rancher who did not even try to conceal his disdain for federal obligations to the horses and because the current Secretary of the Interior, herself a former engineer, has shown no interest in the herds or in addressing the concerns raised by the NAS report. Only the Interior Department, the backwater of all Washington beats, could engender so little muckracking when so much money, and so much else, is on the line. I write about wild horses because their story is the story of every other small interest without political power in Washington or the statehouses of this nation.
They are persecuted. They have rights but no remedies. And their fate isn’t going to get better unless more people come to understand the injustice of what’s happening to them -- and how far the gulf is between the noble image we have given them in our national psyche and the reality of their perilous existence. That’s why I write about wild horses and it’s why I am grateful when anyone happens to read what I’ve written.