Velma Bronn Johnston, Wild Horse Annie

It has been estimated that over 30,000 wild horses and burros live on public lands managed by Bureau of Land Management in 10 Western states.

Velma Bronn Johnston, better known as Wild Horse Annie, started the movement to save and protect the “wild ones,” as she referred to them. I’ll call her Annie throughout because she liked the nickname and insisted her friends call her by that name.

Annie was a Nevadan, a descendant of pioneers. She was born in 1912. She learned a lot about horses because her father operated a freighting service, and the family lived on a ranch. Some of the horses there were of mustang origin.  A mustang is an American wild horse, a small hardy horse living on the plains of North America, descended from Arabian horses brought to the continent by Spanish soldiers.

At age eleven, Annie contracted polio. She had to spend months encased in a body cast in the hospital, and because of this, was disfigured. Back at her parents’ ranch, she spent much of her time taking care of animals. She was enthusiastic about learning, liked poetry and drawing, but was often unhappy at school because the other children mocked her disfigurement. She married a neighbor, Charlie Johnston, part Delaware Indian, tall, powerful and strong, and they established a ranch, the Double Lazy Heart Ranch. Velma and Charlie couldn’t have children, but opened their place freely and with love to children, including troubled city kids. They were married 27 years. Annie worked as a secretary for forty years for an insurance executive, Gordon Harris, who was one of her strongest supporters, in addition to her father, mother and husband.

In 1950, Annie had an experience that completely altered the course of her future. While driving to work one day, she saw a terrible sight in front of her.  A truck crammed full of wild horses was dripping blood. Impulsively, she followed the truck to a pet food slaughter house. Keeping out of sight, she saw more: a yearling was crammed between two stallions in the truck. The yearling was being trampled to death, hence the blood. She was outraged and decided to tell the public about this cruelty to wild horses.

As a private secretary, Annie was trained to do her work systematically and efficiently. She transferred these skills to her campaign. She also profited from her father’s advice: he said that she would have to provide FACTS and EVIDENCE because her enemies would say that she was an “overly emotional female.” Annie later wrote about this: “You see, because I am a woman, I cannot afford to indulge in anything bordering on the sentimental, lest I be judged over-emotional… .There isn’t a thing wrong with emotion. It is a very important part of our lives; but when a woman begins on it, fighting a man’s battle in a man’s world, she has three strikes against her to begin with and I had to learn to talk on that level. What personal feelings I have are something different.”

She began her campaign in her home county, Storey County. In her wisdom, she took her battle to school children, ranchers, business people, politicians, even biologists—anyone she could reach and interest in her cause. She was resolute, persistent, and passionate. An excellent speaker, she asked every audience for justice for her wild ones. She always dressed in a ladylike way and her strong speeches and passion for her cause convinced many to join her campaign. A reporter who set up an interview asked her to “ham it up,” that is, dress in western clothes and carry a gun. He said after meeting her, “I thought for a minute that I had fallen into the wrong company….Here was a slim little lady in a crisp linen sheath, kind of blue-green, with stiletto heels, who laid aside her white gloves and white bag to shake my hand[s].”

One of her enemies referred to her sarcastically as “Wild Horse Annie.” Velma accepted the name freely, proud of it. Eventually her name became a badge of affection, respect, and inspired leadership. But more seriously, in those early years, her life was often in danger. She received many threats, and had to answer the door with a gun.

Annie tells the story of the first threat to the freedom of the wild horse. During the 1950s in the west, ranchers, hunters and “mustangers” harvested wild horses for business purposes.

“The turning point in the story of the wild horse came with the rise of [the] canned dog-and-cat food business, and the demand for fresh horsemeat sold in pet shops.  Once the big slaughter got under way, the wild horse was doomed, for there [were] no protective laws whatever.  Several methods were used in capturing the animals, but the one most popular and effective from the point of view of the horsemeat hunters (mustangers) followed along these lines:  The old technique of rounding up horses with crews of hard-riding cowboys was too slow and too costly, so the airborne cowboy came into being.  The mustangs are driven at breakneck speed by planes, from their meager refuge in the rough and barren rim rock into flatlands or dry lakebeds.  There the chase is taken up by hunters standing on fast-moving pickup trucks, and the exhausted mustangs, after a run of fifteen to twenty miles speeded by swooping planes, many of them carrying bullet wounds inflicted to make them run the faster, are easy victims for ropers.  Once the running horse is roped, a heavy truck tire tied to the other end of the rope is thrown out of the truck.  The frantic horse, with his sides heaving and blood running from his nostrils, soon falls exhausted, where his feet are quickly trussed.  Another line is then attached to his hind legs and he is pulled up a plank ramp into the bed of the truck.  The ropes are removed and the animal is prodded to his feet.  Frequently the hide is stripped from his side during the drag up the board ramp.  The main objects of the horse hunters are to deliver the animals to the slaughtering houses in quantity and ambulatory, where they receive from four to six cents per pound.  The animals, loaded without regard to size, terrified and injured, are subjected to a long haul out of state.  Many are trampled.  Others, too badly hurt to load, are left to die from the injuries received in the long pursuit by plane and truck.  Young colts are frequently abandoned and starve to death, or are killed by predatory animals.”

Annie mounted a grassroots campaign to educate people as to these cruel practices. She convinced Walter Baring, a Nevada Congressman, and he introduced a bill in Congress to prohibit the use of motorized vehicles, aircraft and land vehicles, in the capture of free-running horses or burros and to forbid the poisoning of water holes where the animals drank. The bill passed in 1959 and was known as the “Wild Horse Annie Act.”

Annie writes about her campaign:

“As the publicity has become more widespread, and the iniquitous story was revealed in all its brutality and greed, letters began pouring in, and for nearly two years, now, no day has passed with [out] its quota of mustang letters.  I have answered every one, and have followed up with material and instructions as to how to support Congressman Baring.  Offers to help have come from every state, and people in all walks of life have joined the fight – ministers, housewives, students, teachers, sportsmen, the nuns in a convent in the East, a blind man who had read the story in Braille, men in the Armed Forces in far-away places, lawyers, doctors- and people from all ages – the youngest a potential Miss America of six, and the eldest a one-time cowpoke in his eighties, who could well remember the wild ones he’d ‘broke and rode.’  As the story filtered into foreign countries, letters bearing exotic postage stamps began to arrive:  From Portugal and Spain, the Belgian Congo, Brazil, Porto Rico, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, England, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Cyprus and from our newest state Alaska…   At least my efforts have accomplished this much:  mustang fever is raging!”

While “The Wild Horse Annie Act” was a giant step forward in protecting the wild horses and burros, it was not enough. Annie had recommended that there be a federal program to manage, control and protect the “wild ones.” During the 1960’s she started to work on getting more sweeping federal legislation.

Her campaign this time was complicated by Charlie’s death and other problems. She said: “When Charlie and I were a team, no hill was too high to climb, no challenge too great to tackle.  Even that last awful year when we both knew he was dying and we both play-acted it out to the very end just as though we would have each other for years on end, each of us thinking only of the other…. I suppose I am not using good judgment in taking on so tough a fight at this time for the second time in my life, with limited time, health, finances, and a decade added to my age, but having spent the greater part of the last eighteen years witnessing the unspeakably cruel destiny of the wild ones, it would not be characteristic of me to turn my back on them until the last victorious plateau is reached.  God willing, and with the help of all who love them, may that time not be too far away.”

Her continuing efforts resulted in the landmark 1971 legislation, the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act, passed unanimously in Congress. Wild horses and burros are given protection on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands in 303 areas. Here is what she said to Congress:

“ [the Act] climaxed ten years of struggle against the powerful forces aligned against any effort to curtail the slaughter – forces comprised of the domestic livestock industry, the target animal industry, and pet food manufacturers, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management – custodian of the public lands – which looked upon the commercial harvesting of the animals as an expedient means of range clearance to make more forage potential available to the vested interest groups…. Decades of bloody and indiscriminate annihilation of wild horses and burros, under the agency’s direction in order to make more grazing land available for domestic livestock, was [a] black chapter in the history of man’s abuse of animals until an act of Congress in 1959 outlawed that expedient means of ‘management and control.’  It is unlikely the public would support any move to restore a practice that would again, inevitably, lead to over-zealous programs through its very expediency.”

Annie also fought for establishing special wild horse refuges, and was instrumental in organizing two groups: the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, and Wild Horses Organized Assistance (WHOA). Both are active today. But she also worked in the field whenever she could. Annie and her assistants watched the animal herds carefully to see that they were treated fairly. She wrote meticulous field notes, included maps and photographs of animal spottings, individual descriptions of animals, testimony from witnesses, and other evidence.

After the federal legislation passed, Annie was honored as the first woman to receive the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Humanitarian of the Year Award. Her speech to the Massachusetts SPCA reveals much about her and her place in the history of animal protection:

“Have you ever wondered how it feels to touch a star?  I can pretty well tell you about it now.  The feeling is a combination of many things…of exhilaration over the successful accomplishment of a difficult job; of gratitude to all those who have helped to bring it about; of an inability to believe that the long, hard fight is actually over; of a great pride in belonging to a country where it is possible to fight for that in which we believe, and to be granted the right to speak for it to that country’s lawmakers.  It is a combination, too, of a deep humility for the love and respect that are written into the hundreds upon hundreds of letters that I have received from my fellow-men; of sincere appreciation from the courtesy, kindness, and consideration that were shown to me by the senators and congressm[e]n not only from my own state, but from every state in the union, while I was in Washington, to the extent that not for a moment did I feel unsure, or alone, or far from home; of high regard for the written word in magazines and newspapers, that added its strength in support of our efforts; of unshakable faith in the ability of the individuals to succeed in his endeavors eventually. Of a sublime belief in the great capacity of the human mind and heart for goodness and compassion when alerted to the inequities of any kind; profound joy, because children, little and big in their many different ways, responded to the dire plight of their animal friends- their letters of thanks, misspellings and all, are worthy of a special place in a treasure chest of important things; of an overwhelming awareness of the truly broad scope of humaneness that is not limited by political or religious affiliations, nor by any of the barriers so common to many… social problems; of a knowledge of the tremendous strength and ability of  organizations throughout the country, and their dedication, in the fight to right the wrongs done to those in the animal world; of a peace within that comes with knowing that one small part of this earth is a little better for our having righted the wrong. How does it feel to touch a star?  It feels real good.”

Annie died, too soon, in 1977, at age 65.

Unfortunately, the well-being of the free-roaming horses is still threatened by flawed federal legislation passed last year, which allowed unscrupulous buyers of wild horses to kill them for Europeans who like to eat horse meat.

Comments are closed.