Madeleine Pickens subscribes fully to the very British ‘Love me, love my dog’ sensibility and has embraced and championed the cause of not just the wild mustangs of America, but also of animals in distress in general.
BB: What prompted your interest in the mustangs – how did it all start?
I have always loved animals and when I found out about the horse slaughter in this country, I was terribly saddened by it. I immigrated to America when I was 22. I was at the time captivated by the quintessential image of the West – John Wayne, cowboys and Indians -recognizing it was history but finding it exciting nonetheless. America was discovered by the early settlers on horseback and to some extent horses are the symbol of those early days.
BB: Where were you born?
I was born in Iraq. my mother was Lebanese and my father was English. He was in the 8th Army with Montgomery during World War II and met my mother in Cairo.
BB: Where did you grow up?
We travelled quite a bit and lived in France and Algiers, but I went to school in England and France.
BB: Do you ride?
You know, not any more. I just enjoy the nature now, but my daughter was a fabulous Grand Prix rider. We were involved in racing and have bred and raced many thoroughbred champions all over the world (ie: the Great Cigar and Arazi). however, at no time did I ever think that horses ended up in slaughter plants. Never did I think that they end up on a dinner plate, with some people in France and Belgium taking pride in serving you wild mustang.
BB: Does the us export specifically wild mustangs to France and Belgium?
They export all race horses, children’s jumpers, and mustangs. You have what is called ‘killer buyers’ in America. The killer buyers are the ones that transport and buy these horses from auction houses. And you know, it could be a child’s pony that’s stolen from a field. Right now, thank heavens, the mustang is somewhat protected by legislation, however, just like with anything else, there are loopholes and wrongdoers because there is always somebody somewhere who has got an angle.
BB: Are you saying that horse flesh export is a particularly lucrative industry?
Oh, for sure, and although we closed it down in America 3 or 4 years ago, people are lobbying to re-open the slaughter plants again. People never stop being greedy even though they have certainly made enough money from trading horse flesh.
BB: Tell us about the eco-lodge that you are establishing?
I was struck by the fact that a 100 years ago there were 2 million wild mustangs on the range and today we have about 27, 000 horses left on the range. I thought about it and prayed that I could come up with a solution, then one day, my head cleared and I knew exactly what to do. I would go to the Bureau of Land Management (U.S. Government) and present a plan like any other rancher in America. I would buy a ranch, with deeded acres. Now, with the deeded acres in the United States, if you are in the right areas, there are public lands where you can buy the grazing rights too. The 25,000 acre ranch that I bought fortunately had 600,000 adjoining acres of public lands which meant I could also purchase the grazing rights. I then asked the government if they would convert the grazing from cattle to horses. The land is at an elevation of 5700 feet and goes up to almost 11,000 feet at the tip. It’s mountain and valleys and it’s quite beautiful. We have snow and we have summer; we have water and we have quite a nirvana there. I have rescued almost 600 horses that are living quite peacefully on my deeded land. I would now like to create an eco-preserve there.
BB: Where did you rescue them from?
They came from an Indian tribe called Paiute which used to be a nomadic tribe back in the 1800s. Then at some point the government offered them 450 000 deeded acres, so long as they would settle there. They liked that and lived that way for a long time and then suddenly decided they wanted to get money for raising cattle. Instead of sharing the land with the horses, they tried to get more for them and sold them for slaughter. Indian tribes live on sovereign land and the u.S. has no jurisdiction over them, so the horses are not safe from slaughter. The Indian tribes do what they want on their own land. Someone told me about this and I said okay, I will take them. When I got involved, this became one massive rescue operation. I am delighted to have done it because I have learnt so much from the experience. They are the sweetest horses. What I am now trying to do is create an eco-sanctuary so that people can come on visits and see the real West, see what the horse is like. I’d like to create an educational eco sanctuary where you can go out and spend the night boy scout-style, learn about the stars, cook out at night and just generally recreate the Wild West as it once was. But that’s not all – there is so much more we could and will do. A patriotic village for our wounded warriors; riding lessons; hiking; a wellness center… I am also making sure that we are sustainable so that if I die tomorrow, the entire project survives without me. There are plans to work the land and create organic produce gardens. It’s an exciting project and many people want to be involved with it.
BB: In what way can people get involved?
Many want to come and work there and just be around the horses. others want to be part of the educational process. Although the reserve is very beautiful, there isn’t too much going on here and this allows people to spend time together as a family, and leave with many shared experiences. I feel very blessed that I have been able to create this reserve.
BB: How long have you been involved with this cause?
I started this journey three and half years ago. It’s taken a lot of work in Washington, lobbying congressmen and senators, explaining to them that you are just trying to do the right thing. The land I purchased belongs to my foundation, Saving America’s Mustangs, now so no one can take it away from the horses. My husband has been instrumental and inspirational in this endeavour – when I see him accomplishing something I realize he has just shown me how to do it. When [Hurricane] Katrina happened, I saw on TV all the cats and dogs that had been abandoned by their owners in the water or on rooftops and resolved to go there and see if I could rescue some. My husband came with me and was enormously helpful. We were able to rescue 800 animals which were airlifted to California. I just wanted people to know that the pets they had left behind were having a good life again somewhere else. I think that when private people get involved in a rescue like this, things get done a lot better. Bureaucrats are weighed down with regulations and become almost catatonic. I enjoy rescue work, I sleep well at night and I don’t think I have ever been this happy as I am now, doing this kind of work.
BB: Well, you are obviously very passionate about animals and one doesn’t necessarily find this kind of passion at government level, and that makes all the difference.
Yes, I am passionate about all animals, whether horse, donkey, dog, or a cat. It’s partly to do with being British. English people care hugely about their dogs and I wish I could get them to face the facts of horse slaughter there. Just think about it, when it can no longer win races and cannot be bred, a horse is given to a child who rides it and rides it, breaks it down and then, it’s a fast lane to the meat factory for that horse. I didn’t know this when I lived in England. There is a certain naivety there and it’s time that people start getting educated about it.