In the 1950s, there was a secretary in Nevada named Velma Johnston who loved horses. Velma was stricken with polio as a child and was disfigured as a result. She had suffered ridicule and discrimination thereafter and developed a great empathy those also suffering mistreatment. One day Velma was driving down the road near her home and saw blood trailing from a horse trailer full of wild mustangs which was traveling in front of her on the highway. She followed the trailer to a rendering facility and the horror which she witnessed there caused her to dedicate the rest of her life to lead a fight to protect one of our nation’s greatest treasures – our wild mustangs (also referred to as wild horses and burros).
Velma Johnston started her fight to protect and preserve America’s wild mustangs at the grassroots level in the mid 1950s. Local schoolchildren and their mothers made up the bulk of her supporters. Her group became determined to raise public awareness of the dire situation with American mustangs and fight for government protection of the herds. At some point she was snidely dubbed “Wild Horse Annie” by one of her strongest detractors and was vilified by a large group of those in favor of continued “mustang hunting.” Her life was threatened many times to the point where Annie was answering the door to her home with a gun she held behind her back for protection. Nonetheless, her message resonated and her campaign spread like wildfire within the American public’s conscience. The outrage at the mistreatment and neglect of these beautiful horses and burros kept expanding further and further. Velma, in defiance of her detractor’s attempts to marginalize her with his “Wild Horse Annie” label, insisted that her friends begin calling her Annie.
Annie and the herd’s supporters began lobbying members of Congress in earnest, demanding that they take action. Their relentless efforts eventually led Walter Baring, a Nevada Congressman, to introduce federal legislation which would outlaw the use of motor vehicles to hunt wild horses on public land. The legislation became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act and became law in September of 1959.
The Wild Horse Annie Act was a brave and groundbreaking first step, although it fell short in many ways. Even at the time it was passed into law, it was becoming increasingly clear that America’s herds of wild horses and burros needed direct management and protection. The relentless public outcry to Congress demanding such management and protection continued for more than a decade. Finally, in 1971, Congressmen and women had received more letters demanding action to ease the plight of the wild mustang herds than had ever been received regarding any issue in history outside of war related issues.
Finally, in 1971, in response to the outrage Annie had kindled and when the estimated population of wild horses in America had dwindled to around 17,000 from a million or more around 1900, Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 which protected the herds from various types of mistreatment and affirmatively stated that “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene” and that “it is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
Since 1971 there have been amendments to the 1971 law and other laws have been passed and Court orders entered, all of which serve to further the goal of protecting America’s wild free-roaming horses and burros. The population of wild horses and burros is now upwards of 45,000 and is maintained on over 31 million acres of federal land, but it was the efforts of a small town secretary in an insurance office with a huge heart who sparked the fire which resulted in Congressional (and court) action to protect these majestic national treasures – America’s wild horses and burros.
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