Saving Wild Horses: An Interview with Ginger Kathrens
Ginger Kathrens is an Emmy Award-winning producer, cinematographer, writer and editor as well as an award-winning author; Kathrens is also the founder and executive director of The Cloud Foundation, which is dedicated to the preservation of wild horses living on public lands. Her documentaries on the free-roaming horse called Cloud are an extraordinary -- indeed unique -- chronicle of an animal’s natural life from birth.
The Cloud Foundation and Friends of Animals sponsored The March for Mustangs on March 25 in Washington, D.C., where Kathrens was a speaker. This interview occurred by phone on April 14.
FoA: When did you decide to become a documentary filmmaker?
GK: I was always drawn to movies, ever since I was a kid. To my parents’ aggravation, I would spend a lot of time watching old movies.
Feature films were really what I was drawn to, and I worked on one feature when I was in my early 20’s. When I started my own business in Colorado Springs, I had to do anything and everything to try to make a living: commercials, public service announcements… The Olympic committee moved there and I started doing projects related to that; I did their official film, a short subject with the skater Scott Hamilton, a swimming series, and a boxing film.
I found that I was better at longer formats as opposed to 30 second commercials; I found it a lot more fun, and that I had some natural story-telling ability. But it wasn’t until [PBS narrator and producer] Marty Stouffer asked me to write a script for him for his Wild America television series that I was able to combine my love of nature and wildlife with my skills as a filmmaker. That elevated my productions out of the ordinary, and certainly made them way above average. That was in 1987, and I have been doing television documentaries ever since.
FoA: You are known in the animal advocacy community for your documentaries about Cloud, a wild horse whose entire life you’ve documented. How did this series of films come about?
GK: I started working for Marty Stouffer as a writer, and as a researcher and editor, too; it wasn’t until 1993, when I won an Emmy Award for a film I had both produced and shot called “Spirits of the Rainforest,” that Marty actually allowed me to shoot for Wild America.
“Spirits of the Rainforest” was a multi award-winning movie made for The Discovery Channel, and when Marty saw it, he just loved it. He realized I had skills beyond editing and writing.
He always wanted to do a film about mustangs. He called me in November 1993, and asked me to shoot a program about wild horses for him. I was really, really pleased that he asked me to shoot, but I was also worried because he thought I knew a lot about horses and I didn’t. My thought was: “How am I going to create a whole documentary about animals that only stand around in a field and graze all day?”
FoA: What is it that inspires you about wild horses now?
GK: A year into my filming “Year of the Mustang” for Marty, Cloud came tottering out from behind the trees in front of my camera. I had no idea at that time that I was going to end up doing a film, let alone a series of films, about one wild horse.
Cloud’s father and the mares became my teachers, taking pity on this completely ignorant filmmaker wandering around in their wilderness home. Every time I would be out there in this beautiful area of the Montana-Wyoming border, they would appear. A year into my filming Cloud was born. That was in 1995; it wasn’t until 1999 that I had the idea to make a film about Cloud.
From the first time I came to the range, I was educated on what it meant to be a wild horse. I learned about their rich communication, and the social order of wild horses; they reminded me of wolves, initially.
The father is there 365 days a year; it’s his job to keep the family together and protect the family. The lead mare will tell them when it’s time to go to water, that a storm is coming and it’s time to head into the trees, or when it’s time to drop downhill because of snow. The lead mare guides the family in their day-to-day activities.
The communication is so subtle and intricate. I just came to love, respect and appreciate their love of family -- and their joy at being wild and free.
FoA: Many people in the United States don’t even know wild horses exist -- much less that they are under siege by the government. Why is this?
I think the Bureau of Land Management wants it that way. I think it’s been a plan to make wild horses an invisible ingredient on public land.
And when they did talk about wild horses, they would refer to them as “feral,” which is a politically charged term for an animal that was once tame that has gone wild.
Then on the other hand, the BLM is required to offer them for adoption; and when they offered them for adoption they had a real hard time of it because they’d tried to make them invisible, and talked about them as though they are worthless animals. They’ve done no eco-tourism, no signage along roads…if people could see them roaming free, they would love them. If you love them, you want to preserve that which you love and understand. By keeping them in the background, and not letting people know anything about them, it’s been an effective way to remove them without any public outcry.
FoA: How many wild horses live in the United States currently? How many live free, and how many have been captured and corralled by the Bureau of Land Management?
GK: We don’t know how many wild horses are roaming free right now. That’s one thing we are asking for, an independent census. The BLM would have us believe there are over 30,000 and yet the best statistical review that’s been done would indicate as few as 15,000. We know that the government is indicating that 36,000 wild horses are currently being housed in corrals and pasture. There are more wild horses in captivity on the taxpayer dime than there are living free.
In 1971, the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed unanimously by Congress to preserve mustangs. The BLM was put in charge of managing them.
The BLM was a livestock and oil and gas extractive user management organization; then they had a wildlife species foisted upon them. They have always tried to work their way around their duties to legally protect them. In 1974, it was reported that there were 54,000 wild horses on public lands, and they identified the 303 herd areas where horses and burros were found. There are only 186 herds now. And look how many horses are on the range compared to 1974. You can see how far we’ve backslid under the reign of the BLM.
FoA: The Bureau of Land Management officials suggest that they’re saving starving horses. Isn’t their real concern for animal agribusiness -- the attitude that free-roaming horses and burros get in the way of grazing cows?
GK: The short answer to that is “yes.” The competition over limited resources in the arid west has always been the major reason that wild horses have been treated so badly.
Livestock permittees on public land pay a pittance, $1.35 for a cow-and-calf pair per month. Hence the moniker for this: welfare ranching. If the cattle were really paying their way for being on federal land, without losing money, then the government would have to charge over $9 for a cow-and-calf pair per month of grazing.
Most of the land is controlled by corporations, not individual ranchers. It’s been a decades-long money drain. Just to administer the program costs approximately $144 million per year. And yet the revenues from public lands grazing are only around $21 million. The program loses about $123 million per year.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One of the ways the BLM gets rid of horses is to say they are starving, and that they have to be rescued; they are devouring the land and destroying the landscape and resources is the claim. But there are millions of head of cattle, and there are only a few thousand mustangs. It’s just a method of devaluing the horse and getting rid of a species native to North America.
They are a return native species; they returned to a finished form to North America, where they had been absent for some 7,000 years. In geologic time, it would be less than a heart beat. The reason they were so successful is that they returned to an ecosystem in which they had evolved.
FoA: And they are especially beneficial to the soil and ecology of the West?
GK: Yes, yes, you’re right. They have a post-gastric digestive system, and they process their food very rapidly, not as thoroughly as a ruminant, like a cow or a goat or a pronghorn or a deer or an elk; so they’re really one of the only grazers and browsers that don’t digest all their food. They can, in effect, re-seed their environment.
They also evolved to require a lot of exercise, to work that food through their system properly. They don’t do a lot of standing around; they go into the water holes and they drink and then move on. Cows defecate in the water — whereas I’ve never seen a wild horse poop in their water source. We call them “the green horses” because have so many benefits to the land.
FoA: Watching the round-ups on film is excruciating. Can you describe how the Bureau of Land Management captures them? And once they are captured, what kind of conditions do they live in?
GK: Helicopters are employed for nearly all of the round-up -- and, yes, it’s really difficult to watch. They run the horses over rugged terrain for 10 miles or more. And sometimes they do it in the dead of winter.
Frequently the animals die during the course of the round-ups or as a result of running too far, too fast; sometimes the young foals’ feet can’t hold up. Recently at least two Calico wild horse foals had their hooves separate from their legs, which is unthinkably cruel.
When the horses are brought in, if they are young and adoptable, they are put into feedlot style enclosures. Even some of the long-term holding facilities are feedlots. Most horses over the age of 10 are placed in privately run pastures in Kansas and Oklahoma. The public is not allowed to view the horses in these long term facilities on private land. Even some of the short-term feedlot facilities are off limits for public viewing except on rare occasions. So as far as what the conditions truly are, we can’t monitor that. We can’t know for sure and we can’t verify how many horses are really being warehoused by BLM.
FoA: Why are politicians so reluctant to support measures to put an end to this?
The livestock industry has a powerful lobbying organization -- even though there are probably only a few thousand members of the National Cattlemen’s Association [now the National Cattlemen's Beef Association] . They tend to hold a lot of sway over Western politicians.
Animals on public lands have suffered as a result. Not just wild horses and burros, but the predators too. Livestock permittees demand that any predator that might kill a calf of a sheep on public land be eradicated. The taxpayers foot this multi-million dollar program too. This is just disgraceful, and, of course, leads to an imbalance in the wild horse herds.
So where we can keep our hands off, and let nature take care of itself, it can work quite handily. When we interfere, things tend to get all mucked up.
FoA: Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) supports an end to wild horse round ups, and is supposedly going to introduce a new bill or amendment. Can you tell us more?
GK: Senator Landrieu is going to introduce legislation that will either be a new Wild Horse and Burro Act or it will be an amended version of ROAM (Restore Our American Mustangs); that legislation that passed the House is now in a Senate committee, and it’s stalled there.
I don’t know what the senator is planning on doing, whether she’s planning on striking what’s causing it to be stalled and simply introduce ROAM part II, or whether it will be a completely new piece of legislation. But the purpose of it is to RE-protect, as some people say, our wild horses, and allow for the release of some of these horses that are costing the taxpayers an arm and a leg, particularly the short-term horses; that’s what I am recommending. The land is still there, and those short-term horses need to be identified and they need to be sent back home. I think the public would like to see the gates opened up and see these beautiful animals go free.
How can supporters of Friends of Animals get involved?
They should contact their senators and congressional representatives. Even if they don’t live in a state that has wild horses, they need to express to their elected officials that they very much value the wild horses and burros on public land.
Certainly the BLM’s management is a fiscal train-wreck. It is costing hundreds of millions of dollars per year unnecessarily. Not only is it costing the horses their freedom and families, it’s costing taxpayers a lot of money. Explain that you vote, you pay taxes, and you don’t want your tax money used in this way.
For those who haven’t seen your riveting Cloud documentaries, where are they available?
The three books I’ve written about Cloud and the three movies are available on The Cloud Foundation website [www.TheCloudFoundation.org]. You can purchase them for a donation to The Cloud Foundation to support our efforts. Our goal is to educate the public and the media about the beauty and wonder of wild horses -- and the legal right of wild horses to occupy their legally designated homes on the range.
What’s next for you?
Hard to say, isn’t it? There’s something to be said for working on feature films as opposed to documentary films; feature films have scripts! And you have a beginning and end!
You can’t write the script for a documentary like this, because by the time you write it or think you can predict what’s going to happen, it turns out totally different. That was certainly the case with my last documentary, Cloud: Challenge of the Stallions. Who in the world would have predicted that Shaman would raise Cloud’s son, and then Cloud would raise Shaman’s son; and they kept them with them for four years, which is way longer than most stallions keep their growing, maturing sons with them; and both of those sons, at exactly the same time of year, would turn on their fathers to try to take away their mares? It’s has Shakespearian overtones.
What You Can Do
Please contact your senators and representatives and urge them to get involved on behalf of the autonomy of free-roaming equids.
To contact the Senate:
The Honorable (Name)
United States Senate
Washington , DC 20510
To contact the House of Representatives:
The Honorable (Name)
The House of Representatives
Washington , DC 20515
Secretary Ken Salazar
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240
E-Mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
BLM Director Bob Abbey
Bureau of Land Management
1849 C Street, N.W. Room 5661
Washington DC 20240