08 March 2014

Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs: The Life of Velma Johnston


Synopsis from Goodreads: In 1950, Velma Johnston was a thirty-eight-year-old secretary en route to work near Reno, Nevada, when she came upon a truck of battered wild horses that had been rounded up and were to be slaughtered for pet food. Shocked and angered by this gruesome discovery, she vowed to find a way to stop the cruel round-ups, a resolution that led to a life-long battle that would pit her against ranchers and powerful politicians—but eventually win her support and admiration around the world. This is the first biography to tell her courageous true story. Like Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, or Temple Grandin, Velma Johnston dedicated her life to public awareness and protection of animals. Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs follows Velma from her childhood, in which she was disfigured by polio, to her dangerous vigilante-style missions to free captured horses and document round-ups, through the innovative and exhaustive grassroots campaign which earned her the nickname “Wild Horse Annie” and led to Congress passing the “Wild Horse Annie Bill,” to her friendship with renowned children’s author and horse-lover Marguerite Henry.

A powerful combination of adventure, history, and biography,Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs beautifully captures the romance and magic of wild horses and the character of the strong-willed woman who made their survival her legacy.

Stats for my copy: Hardback, published by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2010; borrowed from the public library.

First line: Bundles of dried sagebrush clung to the fencing of the corral behind Joe and Trudy Bronn's small clapboard house.

My thoughts: At the library with my daughter recently, I was browsing up and down the shelves when the title of this book caught my eye. I didn't think I'd ever heard of Wild Horse Annie, but when I read the chapters about Velma's friendship with Marguerite Henry, who wrote a book about her, I realized I probably read said book many many years ago. That whole section of this book actually made me want to go back and reread all of Henry's books.

One day in 1950, Velma Johnston, a secretary, was driving on the roads of Reno, Nevada, when she came up behind a livestock trailer, and noticed there seemed to be blood dripping out of it. That drip of blood turned into a small stream, and dismayed, Velma followed the trailer until it stopped, intent on warning the driver that he needed to check his cargo. I can only imagine the horror she felt when she looked inside that trailer, because just reading the description of the damaged and mangled live horses it contained made my stomach feel queasy.

The book traces Velma's early childhood to her death in 1977. Along the way she contracts polio as a child, which permanently disfigures her, and meets and marries Charlie Johnston, who would be her staunch supporter and helper in her campaign to save the horses. In the early days of the fight she and Charlie snuck around at night, freeing wild horses from corrals or pens where they were being held while awaiting transport to a slaughterhouse. But she soon became involved in politics and pushing through new legislation to protect the horses. Besides trying to keep wild horses from being slaughtered for pet food, she particularly wanted it to be illegal for the horses to be rounded up by airplane or helicopter, which was a terrifying experience for the horses that resulted in physical injuries as they were forced to run at panicked speeds over rough terrain. It was a long battle with many ups and downs, and Velma was fighting for protection and humane treatment to the very end of her life.

Detailed and articulate without being dry, the authors' respect for their subject shines through in this well written account of the life of a truly incredible woman.  

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