Chargers Dad, Harry is in this article...this woman is my hero...and thanks for posting...some of us still lurk around these parts..peace debbra
Wild at heart
Karen Sussman lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and loves it. These days, life is all about her "sweeties" -- half-ton wild horses she's rescued from slaughter.
By Jon Tevlin, Star Tribune
Just before dusk, the last squint of light pushes hard across a drought-hardened slant of scrub grass, mud and tumbleweeds, stitched in by an endless line of fence posts. Fat prairie dogs scatter from the rattle of a pickup truck bearing the scars of ranch work: panels kicked in by the hooves of bucking animals, mirrors smashed clean off, hood paint gnawed down to raw metal, windows smeared by the spit of nosy horses.
In the lowland along a dry creek bed, wild mahogany-colored stallions muscle each other with bared teeth, their manes flying, their hooves hammering the earth. One giant horse rears in the low sun and slams against another. A piece of flesh the width of its mouth hangs below a fresh red gash.
Karen Sussman jumps down from the truck and walks into the herd. These Gila horses, thought to be direct descendants of those brought by Spanish conquistadores to Mexico, are beautifully fearsome. They have survived relentless desert sun, brittle winters and, perhaps, hunters' guns.
Sussman, 60, stands 5 feet 2 in her rubber boots. She's a former Scottsdale, Ariz., nurse, and looks like it. Her hair is done just-so. Rouge dusts her cheeks and she wears raspberry lipstick. A fleece top is painted with pictures of mustangs.
"Hi, sweethearts," she coos at the 900-pound horses. "How are my babies?"
Two of the largest stallions step from the herd. Ian and Magic.
"There's my big boys," says Sussman. "Give Mommy a kiss."
Sussman leans forward. Ian, who moments before had viciously attacked another horse, nuzzles her with his massive head.
• • •
The people on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, a lonely, barren place in central South Dakota, call Sussman "the medicine horse lady," or sometimes, "the crazy horse lady."
Sussman lives alone in a double-wide, atop a small hill overlooking a 680-acre ranch lashed by wind. There, she cares for 300 wild horses, three genetically unique herds rescued from slaughterhouses by Sussman and her organization, the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB).
The widespread slaughter of wild horses was banned in 1971, largely because of the work of ISPMB founder Velma (Wild Horse Annie) Johnston. But in 2004, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., attached a rider to a bill that reopened the killing of horses 10 years or older, or those offered unsuccessfully for adoption three times. Since then, those horses can be "adopted" by people who simply sell them to a slaughterhouse.
Ranchers and others have complained that herds have eaten crops and overgrazed pastures, which Sussman contests. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the nation's 261 million acres of public land, and argues that controlling the wild horse population is essential to range management; horses compete with cattle ranchers and the oil and logging companies that lease that land. The BLM currently has 31,000 horses in holding pens; another 28,000 run free in public lands.
Although the number of wild horses sent to slaughter has dropped significantly over the years, thousands are still killed every year for food sent to Europe from the country's three remaining slaughter plants. Animal advocates hope to have enough votes among current members of Congress to make the slaughter of horses illegal.
Meanwhile, Sussman and the ISPMB, which consists of volunteers and about 1,000 financial contributors, save as many as they can through adoption and Sussman's ranch. The group originally sent 70 horses to leased land in Pine Ridge in 1999, then moved them to the land near Eagle Butte.
Unlike sanctuaries that take in all kinds of horses, Sussman rescues only rare herds that are in danger of elimination. It is the nation's only program that manages intact herds, and two of those, the Gila herd and White Sands herd, exist nowhere else in the country. Sussman says wild horses have the greatest genetic diversity of any particular breed of horses, and their conformation and size varies according to where they are found.
With a severe drought across the state, Sussman is struggling to pay for enough hay -- which has doubled in price in the past two years -- to feed her horses. But she has dreams of more land, returning more wild horses to reservations, and even a series of eco-tourism centers to teach people about the horses and their link to native culture.
"If we don't save these herds, we're going to lose something that will never, ever exist in our country again," she said.
Fran Ackley, the BLM's wild horse and burro specialist for Colorado, acknowledges the government's role in the fate of wild horses is controversial, but said, "I have a lot of respect for Karen. Instead of throwing rocks at us, she's doing something to solve the problem."
Some days, Sussman watches the herds for hours, taking notes on their social behavior and family dynamics. "Their bonds are incredibly strong," she said. "They are a lot like elephants. Some days I feel a little like Jane Goodall, having the privilege of being able to study these wonderful animals in their natural state, the way they've been since the 1600s. They really are the image of America."
• • •
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Sussman read just about every book she could find about horses, including all of the "Black Stallion" series.
"By sixth grade my teachers told me I had to start reading about something else besides horses," Sussman recalled. "So I read some books about dogs and they gave up on me."
Sussman's first wild horse, Shooting Star, was a "repo," taken back from someone who couldn't care for it. "Having this horse really transformed my life.
"There was a person-horse relationship I'd never had before with domesticated horses," she said. "It was just like the Walter Farley books I read as a kid. You build a bond and a trust built on respect and these horses will do anything because of that trust."
It was a bond strong enough to draw her away from Arizona (she's divorced and has two grown children) to a place that might seem inhospitable to outsiders.
"If somebody told me I'd end up in South Dakota in my 'retirement,' I'd say they were crazy," said Sussman. "I didn't know a soul. But my strength was my belief that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. I love South Dakota. If you could imagine what heaven would be like, that's what this is like for me.
"I love it here. It's real. There's no pretense, nobody trying to be better than anyone else. If I drove my Rez-mobile down Scottsdale Boulevard, everybody would look at me and judge me. Not here."
Harry Charger, an elder with the Cheyenne River Tribe, said he knew that someone like Sussman would show up someday. One of the Lakota prophecies is the return of wild horses to the prairies.
"Karen is a visionary," said Charger. "She has this dream to preserve these horses and she's following it. I told her she can't save every horse but she shouldn't worry, because the prophecies say they will be back."
• • •
It's a big day, and Sussman is up before daybreak to transfer horses and build a makeshift chute. Eleven stallions are on their way from West Douglas, Colo. The BLM paid to move them to Sussman's ranch as part of their herd maintainence. "It's multi-use land and the horse has no natural predator, so they can double in four years," said David Boyd, public affairs specialist for the BLM in Colorado.
"This is a stopgap until we can find a place for them to reside," Sussman said.
Using a Buck knife, she cuts some twine to lash together two sections of fence. A young Lakota man, Denny Johnson, helps her part time. During busy times, such as foaling season, volunteers assist with chores.
"It's amazing that one person, a woman, runs this big ranch," said Johnson. "My parents are gone, so Karen says she's adopted me, just like she's adopted these horses. It's great to have someone that I can talk to."
When the horses arrive in a large trailer, Sussman and Johnson are almost giddy. The driver, from the BLM, opens the door and you can hear the shuffling of heavy hooves and the banging of metal inside as the horses sense freedom.
"Horses can smell death, so if they were going to a slaughterhouse, they wouldn't come out," said Sussman.
A thickly muscled stallion bursts from the trailer. The rest follow, banging the wooden fences as they maneuver for the open corral, and away from people.
Sussman smiles. Eventually, they'll get used to her, and she to them. "I'm going to have a wonderful time with these horses," she says by the gate. "You honor and respect them, and they will do anything you ask. Then I can go out there, and I am one of them."
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702 • email@example.com
©2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.