by R.T. Fitch, photography courtesy of Terry Fitch
The hot, dry afternoon was deadly still as the small band of observers sat in the dust atop a bluff overlooking the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) intake/holding facility in the foothills of the Pryor Mountains. They were a small collection of pro-horse advocates with a few tourists sprinkled in and all watched by BLM law enforcement authorities, evidently to ensure their safety from one another. The word had spread that the gathering helicopter was returning with another band of wild horses and the equine advocates whispered amongst themselves wondering if it might be Cloud’s band, the wild horse of PBS fame whose life has been documented by Emmy award winning cinematographer, Ginger Kathren. To add further tension to this question was the fact that Ginger, herself, knelled amongst this group with her eye pressed to the view finder of her video camera. All attempts to save the Pryor Mountain horses from this unnecessary and inhumane round up, or “gather” had failed and all that was left for the friends of the horses was to watch, document and insure that the BLM did not treat the once wild mustangs with any more cruelty than what was already being handed to them.
The small group was quiet as they became oblivious to the searing sun and tuned all of their senses into listening for the approaching helicopter. They could not see a distant approach as the way down the mountain was obscured by desert foothills, but with the past arrivals of herded family bands they could hear the drone of the herding helicopter steadily grow in intensity until it popped into view over the hills several miles to the north, but this time something was different.
They had heard the whirl of the blades and assumed their required positions behind the jute curtain installed by the BLM. The waist high, sieve like barrier was supposed to camouflage the observers from the approaching horses but between the limited line of sight and the separating distance it was unlikely that such a measure was required. As they crouched on the ground, with cameras in hand, they began to notice that the sound of the helicopter would build, fade, build again then fade off into the distance. This was different than what they were accustomed to and several individuals made comments to the effect.
Then, after an extended period of waiting , they saw the helicopter rise above a distant foothill, all cameras and binoculars focused on the point, but before anyone could snap a picture or begin recording the chopper dove back down out of sight only to appear several hundred yards to the north and then turned and took another dive. Several questioning looks were exchanged amongst the observers, there was a feeling that something different was occurring here.
Suddenly the breeze picked up when someone uttered an amplified whisper, “There they are” and across the rolling desert floor motion could be detected broaching the distant hill. For the unaided eye it was difficult to see with clarity but it appeared as if brown and tan snake was beginning to gracefully slide down the hill cleverly avoiding the obstructing Juniper while making its way to the valley below. Another whisper broke the silence “It’s him, it’s Cloud and his family” and with those words the spirit of those in attendance turned into a whirlwind of emotion from which no one could escape.
Some present were, perhaps, relieved that his family had finally been found and the inevitable was about to occur. They had tried to save them through all the legal channels that were available and they had received no response and virtually zero support from those who are charged to serve the public’s best interest, they were crestfallen. The BLM was going to do what was unnecessary and uncalled for so they may as well be done with it and witness the tearing apart of these beautiful creature’s lives. It was an out of control train already set into motion and all they could do was watch and raise an objection should any other travesty greater than this round up occur. There were tears in many eyes.
But there were a few who harbored the fantasy that Cloud would escape, right there before their eyes, and run his herd back up into the safety of their lush, high pasture land. They hoped that he would have a chance but the other side of their heart knew he had little hope of winning against the whirling blades of the evil chopper. Someone whispered with great intensity, “Run Cloud, run your family home” and more eyes began to leak.
Cloud’s herd disappeared into a valley quickly pursued by the helicopter, for a moment nothing could be seen, then, in the same place where they had entered the valley Cloud burst back up the hill guiding his loved ones back to where they had come. Collectively the observers drew a breath and someone said aloud, “Make them work for it Cloud, don’t come easy”, and he did not.
Back and forth across the rolling valley Cloud attempted to dodge and duck the mean aircraft with his family right behind. First one way and then another they crisscrossed across the desert with the helicopter attempting to outwit and out think the savvy stallion. It was a sight to behold, one that the observers had not seen in the days prior, Cloud did not want to be driven to the destruction of his herd.
Slowly the band of once free horses were inching closer to the gauntlet, a series of fencing that was funnel shaped to gather the herd and force them into a gate at the end where holding cells and pens awaited. Closer they came as an agent readied a concealed “Judas” horse that would be released when the band passed by and was trained to run for the gate, to lead the wild horses to their destiny and doom, a betrayer, a Judas who would give up his brother horses to the humans waiting behind the gate. They all waited.
While the helicopter bobbed up and down the nearby valley, Cloud himself came into view, running hard with his beloved mare beside him. They thought that they had found an escape route, they were under the impression that they were leading their family to safety and as the chopper pressed harder they increased their pace.
Cameras clicked, videos recorders whirled and tears fell while the observers watched the symbol of their American west be driven with no respect into the gauntlet from which there was no escape.
The Judas horse was released, it bolted beside the band and charged past Cloud and instead of following the horse’s lead Cloud slowed down, peered forward and then came to a dead stop well away from the end of the gauntlet and waiting gate. The chopper pressed harder and forced the remaining members of Cloud’s family into the gauntlet only to stop and gather around their leader who obviously was aware that something was deadly wrong. All of the observers gasped and stared as this had never happened before; no herd had just stopped and refused to near the gate.
And while a deep silence lay over the witnesses, Cloud, the leader, the master of the mountains turned from the gate and took a stance starring back directly at his aggressor, the helicopter. His intent was obvious, his message was clear, his point was well taken and a few quite sobs were heard within Cloud’s family of human followers. He made his stand, then turned and walked towards the gate. He had done all he could do, the observers had tried all that they could and collectively the humans and horses knew that they had lost all control, their future and fate was no longer in their hands, Cloud’s family was to be ripped apart and all that remained for them was a few final moments of togetherness, a gentle touch, while they huddled in fear against the gate that lead to their group’s destruction. Their cries intermingled with those from their human friends high above who felt their loss and shared their helplessness, they cried together and bowed their heads.
We are told that Cloud will once again run free, that the blue mark on his rump dictates that he is one of the lucky ones that can go back to living his life in the beauty of the Pryor Mountains. But he will do so with several of his loved ones ripped from his band; he will, now, love mares that have been chemically sterilized so that they will bear him no foals and he will be forced to do all of this while surrounded by a herd that will not be able to genetically sustain itself.
This is the gift of managed extinction that we give to our native, American horses, this is the legacy that we leave to our children and this is the image that we Americans project to the rest of the world.
It is not a pretty picture
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