In recent years, Madeleine Pickens has spent sleepless nights agonizing over the plight of the American West's wild mustangs, which have been rounded up and held in pens in increasing numbers over the last eight years by cowboys hired by the federal government's Bureau of Land Management after complaints from cattlemen that the horses were depleting grazing areas. As federal funding for the wild horses was squeezed and the number of people interested in adopting them declined, BLM officials were faced with an unpleasant option: allow the horses to be sent to slaughterhouses or perform mass euthanasia.
The story of these wild horses – “America's animal” she calls them – hit Madeleine Pickens' radar screen at a time when she was putting considerable personal resources of time and money into efforts to end the slaughter of all horses. She studied the issue, then hired a polling company to gauge public opinion on the slaughter of horses for human consumption, finding out that seven in 10 Americans oppose the practice. She then paid for anti-slaughter advertisements in the New York Times, lobbied members of Congress and worked with other groups and individuals. Ultimately, however, those efforts ended in frustration because, she said, the pro-slaughter lobby, assisted by the cattle industry, was simply too entrenched with Washington, D.C., powerbrokers. Anti-slaughter bills passed by the U.S House of Representatives were stopped in the Senate. And she was outraged that so many Thoroughbred industry leaders failed to help.
“I would lay in bed, crying, and say, ‘How can we stop this? What can I do?” she told the Paulick Report. “I'm not a religious person, but a spiritual one, and I swear to God that I prayed for an answer.”
One night, she said, the answer came to her. “Why not buy a ranch and give every horse a home?”
Pickens' plan for a horse sanctuary would be similar to how cattlemen got access to millions of acres of federal land, she said. “This is how the cattlemen got going,” she said. “They got the BLM land attached to their ranches with sweetheart deals. They pay a very low lease for it, and most aren't even using the land now.”
Pickens has a private foundation in the formative stages, a key to which will be tax credits for donors, she told the Washington Post. She met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, where half of the wild horses are held. Pickens isn't prepared to say how much she needs to raise for an endowment to make the plan work, but she is confident she will be able to make it happen. She envisions corporate sponsors, campgrounds and cabins for tourists to come and observe the horses. “There is so much support for this right now,” she said. “It's amazing the number of calls and emails I've received from people who want to help or go to work there.” (Click here to see the official Madeleine Pickens Web site.)
She estimated that she will need upwards of a million acres, and is currently in negotiations on three different properties. She took her plan to BLM officials, who leaked the story to the Washington Post, prematurely, in her opinion. “The story got out way too early while I'm working on the land deal,” she said. “The land people may suddenly say, ‘Ohhh, deep pockets,' and become unreasonable. I'm trying to be responsible and do the right thing here. I'm very confident that next year this whole thing will be in place.”
Pickens said she felt like someone who's been trying to walk through quicksand the last couple of years and can't seem to get out of it. “Nothing was happening, and you can't believe the idiocy of it all,” she said. “Why do people not get it?”
She grew weary of trying to work for a solution in Congress. “The people in the racehorse industry weren't on board and we had all those cattlemen against us,” Pickens said. “We really couldn't win. I give the people who have been fighting this for so long a lot of credit.
“I think this will work because I came up with a private-sector solution rather than trying to put a bill through Washington where politicians could have their way and destroy it. When the bureaucrats do it, it costs too much and doesn't work. With private individuals, you're not indebted to every group or compromised by lobbyists.”
Her proposal has been widely applauded, within the BLM and the general public. While her husband, a well-known corporate raider, oilman and philanthropist, has been a highly visible proponent for a plan to make America energy independent, Madeleine Pickens became an overnight celebrity because of her desire to save the horses. The week her plan went public, ABC's World News Tonight named her “Person of the Week.” Some outside of the horse business remembered her as the heroine (pictured, left) who rescued hundreds of abandoned cats and dogs in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
“I knew people cared, but I was somewhat stunned at the way this story took off like a wildfire,” she said. “It surprised me, but it really shouldn't have.”
A PLACE FOR EX-RACEHORSES, TOO
Pickens said the ranch will not just be a refuge for wild horses. She wants it to be all inclusive for different breeds, and especially ex-Thoroughbred racehorses that often end up unwanted or sold to killer-buyers who send them off for slaughter in Canada or Mexico. There are no remaining horse slaughterhouses in the United States.
“We're going to have enough land where I don't know how we can say no to anything,” she said. “It won't happen overnight. But I want to give the Thoroughbred industry an opportunity to do something here, and to make people feel that they are being responsible for the animals in their sport. I'm going to ask the industry for their support. It's going to be difficult for the racing industry to change their way of thinking. With this, I hope they can say they have an exit strategy for their horses.”
Pickens is still angry over the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's refusal to support recent anti-slaughter legislation in Congress. She was one of a large number of major industry participants to sign a letter written by owner-breeder Josephine Abercrombie to members of Congress stating their support of anti-slaughter legislation and their disapproval of the NTRA's position. “The NTRA had to compromise themselves with Goodlatte (Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and now ranking member), who has helped them with gambling legislation but has close ties to the cattle industry,” she said. “By getting behind my proposal, they won't have to worry about the threat of someone like Goodlatte.”
The Jockey Club is another group that has disappointed Pickens. “They register 35,000 horses a year and they say those horses are worth millions and millions of dollars,” she said. “And they come up with some plan where people can give a few dollars when they register a foal and the Jockey Club says they'll match up to $200,000 a year. This is the same old b.s. — $200,000 is a peanut. How dare they say this is all they're going to put into a retirement fund for all the horses who don't make it. It's all part of what makes the system not work.
“In every business it's leadership, and we've had horrible leadership in racing. Will Farish (vice chairman of the Jockey Club and owner of Lane's End Farm, where Pickens retired Grade I winner Rock Hard Ten to stud) can be a good guy. He's head of this and head of that, and people look up to him. But here's a man who won't go against slaughter. Why? Is it because he's from Houston, where so many of the cattlemen are from?”
Pickens, who said she has withdrawn from the racing business largely because of its inaction on this issue, said she thinks the Thoroughbred industry can learn a great deal from how her proposal has been embraced by the public.
“Racing people can learn that they have a chance to endear the public to them,” she said. “They get a few gamblers here and there, but they are in trouble because they seem to have lost sight of the animal who is the athlete. They have too many fatalities and too many injuries that happen in public on national television. When that happens, it exposes the fact they have no exit strategy for the horses.
“Again, there is no leadership. Those who have been in it for a long time have done nothing to endear people to the business. Now they have an opportunity like the BLM has to try and resolve one of their problems.”
I asked Pickens why she is doing all this, what is driving her to take on a project so big?
She told me of how she emigrated to the United States from Iraq in 1969 because she wanted “to come to a new world and do something with my new country.”
But then she confessed to another reason, something that haunted her when she first learned about the horrors of slaughter: “Maybe it's because I'm ashamed that I was in the industry for years and never knew there was a slaughterhouse for so many horses at the end of the day. I'm so ashamed I never knew. And people who know about it and aren't doing anything, they should be ashamed, too.”
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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