On a usual day driving to work, a truck hauling horses cut in front of Annie's car. She noticed a stream of blood dripping from the truck. Shocked by the trail of blood, Annie followed the truck to a rendering plant. This day would forever change her life. Hiding behind a bush, Annie noted a yearling, tucked between two stallions, down in the truck. The yearling was being trampled to death by horses packed like sardines awaiting their eventual demise in the rendering plant. She was outraged by this act of cruelty and set out to change the course of America's history preventing the eradication of wild horses from public lands.
Annie was born Velma Bronn on March 5th, 1912 in Reno, Nevada. Her parents were Joseph Bronn and Gertrude Clay. Velma was the oldest of four children, 3 girls and 1 boy. She was 5' 7" tall and weighed a mere 110 pounds. Her youngest sister, Betty Jo Larson, described Annie as a perfectionist, a genius, and a tough taskmaster with enormous integrity.
In 1923, at the age of 11, Annie contracted polio and became disfigured from being in a body cast for six months. She coped with her disabilities by becoming strong in her academics and spending much time working with the animals on her parent’s ranch. She wrote poetry and enjoyed drawing. Because of the cruelty inflicted by some of the children in her class, Velma’s mother instilled a strong sense of honesty within her and the attitude of staying as happy as she can.
Velma often boasted that she had wild horse blood in her veins thanks to her father Joe. The story is told that when Joe’s family moved from Nevada to California in the mid 1800’s in a covered wagon that inclement weather conditions drastically reduced rations for the family. A once wild range mare and her foal traveled alongside the wagon with other livestock. Mrs. Bronn, in her weakened condition could not provide enough milk for baby Joe to sustain him. It was the range mare’s milk that supplemented Joe and saved his life.
Mr. Gordon Harris, an insurance broker, who had his own firm, employed Velma as his executive secretary for 40 years. Mr. Harris was one of Annie’s devoted supporters along with her mother and her husband, Charlie Johnston.
Annie met Charlie while visiting her father at the Washoe General Hospital. Both Charlie and her father were patients and shared a room together. It was there that Velma fell in love with this 6’ 4” West Virginian who was a part Delaware Indian. They moved to a 16-acre lot in Wadsworth, Nevada and built their dream place known as The Double Lazy Heart Ranch.
Unable to have children, Velma and Charlie opened their ranch to children of friends from all over the state. There they kept a supply of horses for the young people. Their love for each other became the strength and courage that Velma would draw upon in her crusade to stop the extermination of our country’s great heritage, our last living symbols of the Old West, the wild horses and burros.
Annie was a charismatic leader. As she entered a room, opponents melted at her presence. She was always dressed as a lady and yet her soft words would reverberate like thunder through the souls of those who encountered her. Sierra magazine writer, Harold Walter wrote, “History is made in many odd ways. It is unusual that a peaceful Nevada woman should have stirred the world to the diminishing beat of the wild mustang herds. She made the defiant scream of the stallions a trumpet of protest.” A UPI correspondent wrote of his meeting with Annie. Calling Annie to set up a meeting, he told her to “ham it up.” “We want to see you in your guns and western outfit.” Upon meeting Annie, he said, “I buckled on my fountain pen and galloped through the Capitol canyons to the office of Representative Walter Baring (D-Nevada). I was feeling uneasy about my citified suit and bow tie, and the fact that I wasn’t packing a gun.” When he met Annie, he said, “I thought for a minute that I had fallen into the wrong company.” “Here was a slim little lady in a crisp linen sheath, kind of blue-green, with stiletto heels, who laid aside her white gloves and white bag to shake my hands.” “My ‘hi-ya pardner’ died in my throat. ‘How do you do, maam?’ I managed instead.” Velma realized that her campaign would not be based on her emotionalism but on strong hard facts. She received that advice from her father who warned Velma that her opponents would try to label her as an “overly emotional female.” After all, it had only been 40 years that women had the right to vote in our country.
Women were expected to stay at home, raise a family, and stay out of a man’s world. Annie reflected on his advice in later years. “You see, because I am a woman, I cannot afford to indulge in anything bordering on the sentimental, lest I be judged over-emotional… There isn’t a thing wrong with emotion. It is a very important part of our lives; but when a woman begins on it, fighting a man’s battle in a man’s world, she has three strikes against her to begin with and I had to learn to talk on that level. What personal feelings I have are something different.”
Velma was sarcastically nicknamed “Wild Horse Annie” by one of her bitterest opponents, Dan Solari, who went on to become an employee of the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As a constant reminder that her battle would be pitted against hundreds of Solari’s, she insisted that her friends call her Annie. She became affectionately known as Wild Horse Annie.
During the early years of Velma’s campaign, her life was often in danger. When strangers knocked, Velma answered the door with a gun behind her back. After all, they were living in the times of the Wild West! One of Annie’s strongest ranching opponents said he would like to see Annie in a case of dog food. (Over 30 million pounds of wild horsemeat was processed into food for dogs, cats and chickens during the 30’s alone.)
Annie’s account of the cruelty inflicted upon the wild ones is very poignant. “The turning point in the story of the wild horse came with the rise of canned dog-and-cat food business, and the demand for fresh horsemeat sold in pet shops. Once the big slaughter got under way, the wild horse was doomed, for there was no protective laws whatever. Several methods were used in capturing the animals, but the one most popular and effective from the point of view of the horsemeat hunters (mustangers) followed along these lines: The old technique of rounding up horses with crews of hard-riding cowboys was too slow and too costly, so the airborne cowboy came into being. The mustangs are driven at breakneck speed by planes, from their meager refuge in the rough and barren rim rock into flatlands or dry lakebeds. There the chase is taken up by hunters standing on fast-moving pickup trucks, and the exhausted mustangs, after a run of fifteen to twenty miles speeded by swooping planes, many of them carrying bullet wounds inflicted to make them run the faster, are easy victims for ropers. Once the running horse is roped, a heavy truck tire tied to the other end of the rope is thrown out of the truck. The frantic horse, with his sides heaving and blood running from his nostrils, soon falls exhausted, where his feet are quickly trussed. Another line is then attached to his hind legs and he is pulled up a plank ramp into the bed of the truck. The ropes are removed and the animal is prodded to his feet. Frequently the hide is stripped from his side during the drag up the board ramp. The main objects of the horse hunters are to deliver the animals to the slaughtering houses in quantity and ambulatory, where they receive from four to six cents per pound. The animals, loaded without regard to size, terrified and injured, are subjected to a long haul out of state. Many are trampled. Others, too badly hurt to load, are left to die from the injuries received in the long pursuit by plane and truck. Young colts are frequently abandoned and starve to death, or are killed by predatory animals.”
Annie witnessed the great spirited mustangs being driven to the most remote regions where shelter, feed, and water was almost non-existent. These gallant untamed spirits would survive there and later would be given this almost useless land as their habitat under the 1971 law. Annie wrote, “The commercial exploitation of mustangs is one of the blackest instances in the history of our treatment of animals, and that it has been encouraged and allowed to continue is a reflection upon the lethargic people and bureau that have permitted its continuation… the public is becoming fed up with the monopolistic possessive attitude of the users of the public lands.”
Annie touched people from all walks of lives as she writes, “As the publicity has become more widespread, and the iniquitous story was revealed in all its brutality and greed, letters began pouring in, and for nearly two years, now, no day has passed with its quota of mustang letters. I have answered every one, and have followed up with material and instructions as to how to support Congressman Baring. Offers to help have come from every state, and people in all walks of life have joined the fight – ministers, housewives, students, teachers, sportsmen, the nuns in a convent in the East, a blind man who had read the story in Braille, men in the Armed Forces in far-away places, lawyers, doctors- and people from all ages – the youngest a potential Miss America of six, and the eldest a one-time cowpoke in his eighties, who could well remember the wild ones he’d ‘broke and rode.’ As the story filtered into foreign countries, letters bearing exotic postage stamps began to arrive: From Portugal and Spain, the Belgian Congo, Brazil, Porto Rico, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, England, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Cyprus and from our newest state Alaska. A journalist and photographer from a large news agency in Europe came to our ranch to get the story. At least my efforts have accomplished this much: mustang fever is raging!”
One of the most unique letters Annie received was from a tribal chief of the Sioux Indians. It was most supportive of Annie’s efforts. He offered to bring a band of armed warriors to assist her.
On January 19,1959, a bill was introduced into Congress by Congressman Baring. The bill was passed into law on September 8, 1959 and was known as the Wild Horse Annie Law. (PL 86-234) It prohibited the use of motorized vehicles in the capture of wild horses and prohibited the pollution of water holes for the purposes of trapping horses. Mrs. Johnston maintained that the most powerful opponent to the 1959 bill was the BLM. She contended that the BLM had no interest in prosecuting illicit mustanging operations.
After her successful federal legislation passed, Annie was honored as the first woman to receive the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Humanitarian of the Year Award. Annie truly believed that her work was over and that she could return to being an extraordinary housewife. Little did she know at that time that her work would continue until her death in 1977. Her speech reflected her gratitude.
“Have you ever wondered how it feels to touch a star? I can pretty well tell you about it now. The feeling is a combination of many things…
Of exhilaration over the successful accomplishment of a difficult job; of gratitude to all those who have helped to bring it about; of an inability to believe that the long, hard fight is actually over; of a great pride in belonging to a country where it is possible to fight for that in which we believe, and to be granted the right to speak for it to that country’s lawmakers. It is a combination, too, of a deep humility for the love and respect that are written into the hundreds upon hundreds of letters that I have received from my fellow-men; of sincere appreciation from the courtesy, kindness, and consideration that were shown to me by the senators and congressman not only from my own state, but from every state in the union, while I was in Washington, to the extent that not for a moment did I feel unsure, or alone, or far from home; of high regard for the written word in magazines and newspapers, that added its strength in support of our efforts; of unshakable faith in the ability of the individuals to succeed in his endeavors eventually.
Of a sublime belief in the great capacity of the human mind and heart for goodness and compassion when alerted to the inequities of any kind; profound joy, because children, little and big in their many different ways, responded to the dire plight of their animal friends- their letters of thanks, misspellings and all, are worthy of a special place in a treasure chest of important things; of an overwhelming awareness of the truly broad scope of humaneness that is not limited by political or religious affiliations, nor by any of the barriers so common to many of social problems; of a knowledge of the tremendous strength and ability of organizations throughout the country, and their dedication, in the fight to right the wrongs done to those in the animal world; of a peace within that comes with knowing that one small part of this earth is a little better for our having righted the wrong.
How does it feel to touch a star? It feels real good.”
Annie returned home to Reno to find Charlie ill. They sold their ranch and moved to Greenstone Drive where Annie turned her attention to gardening. “I’d rather garden than do anything I know of. If there’s anything to reincarnation – I hope that I’m a gardener the next time around!”
After an eleven and half month illness, Charlie passed on leaving Velma after 27 years of a wonderful marriage. Velma so aptly describes Charlie’s attributes. “No one since has cast such a tall shadow. It was he who taught me the infinite patience one must have in his reach toward a star; the courage to fight for that in which he believes; the stoicism to take disappointment with a smile; the wisdom to accept the next best thing when the best is unattainable; the importance of always being fair – not only in our marriage but in our relations with others whose paths must cross ours from time to time. Perhaps that was his heritage from a long ago Indian ancestor… and he shared it with me. Charlie gave me faith in myself and let me know it. I think I must have subconsciously stored them all away in some sort of treasure chest, because when I need that strength from time to time, it is always there.”
It was difficult for Annie to regroup for the last biggest challenge of her lifetime – that of bringing permanent legislation to protect all the wild horses and burros on public lands. Losing Charlie had taken a great toll on Annie. She was encouraged by her friends and by Helen Reilly her secretary and founder of ISPMB to not stop until permanent protection was achieved.
Annie wrote, “When Charlie and I were a team, no hill was too high to climb, no challenge too great to tackle. Even that last awful year when we both knew he was dying and we both play-acted it out to the very end just as though we would have each other for years on end, each of us thinking only of the other.” “I suppose I am not using good judgment in taking on so tough a fight at this time for the second time in my life, with limited time, health, finances, and a decade added to my age, but having spent the greater part of the last eighteen years witnessing the unspeakably cruel destiny of the wild ones, it would not be characteristic of me to turn my back on them until the last victorious plateau is reached. God willing, and with the help of all who love them, may that time not be too far away.”
On December 15, 1971 Annie’s efforts paid off and the Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed unanimously in Congress. The following was her testimony before Congress.
“And it climaxed ten years of struggle against the powerful forces aligned against any effort to curtail the slaughter – forces comprised of the domestic livestock industry, the target animal industry, and pet food manufacturers, and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management – custodian of the public lands – which looked upon the commercial harvesting of the animals as an expedient means of range clearance to make more forage potential available to the vested interest groups. From an estimated two million at the turn of the century, their numbers have been reduced to an estimated 25,000 in the late 1950’s. Even though the burros were not commercially exploited, they fared no better than the horses, and claims of overpopulation and possible competition with other fauna led to systematic extermination programs. In addition, would-be Nimrods have found them to be ideal target practice.”
“Decades of bloody and indiscriminate annihilation of wild horses and burros, under the agency’s direction in order to make more grazing land available for domestic livestock, was black chapter in the history of man’s abuse of animals until an act of Congress in 1959 outlawed that expedient means of ‘management and control.’ It is unlikely the public would support any move to restore a practice that would again, inevitably, lead to over-zealous programs through its very expediency.”
By 1974, Annie was diagnosed with high blood pressure and a heart condition. It was not this condition that would lay Annie to her final resting ground but one more severe and deadly. Annie died of lung cancer on June 27. 1977.
Read more about Velma Johnston in the book "Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs". All proceeds benefit ISPMB, Velma's original organization if purchased through ISPMB.