24 Hours Among Wild Horses

Horsemeat — the potential fate of wild mustangs? When I read about this scenario in the newspaper, I feel the overwhelming desire to spend some time with them. This is facilitated by my attendance at a birding convention in Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado in early June. Some 70 miles beyond this gem on the Yampa River lies the range of one of our state’s four wild horse herds. Ever since a brief trip with my husband a few years back, I have cherished the hope to return.

When I enter Moffat County’s Sand Wash basin, my burning question is whether or not I will see wild equines. Because they range freely, they are not always near the gravel road. I scan my surroundings with binoculars. Piles of fresh horse apples suggest the animals’ proximity, but I have to exercise patience for several miles before a single suggestive silhouette on the northern horizon allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. To my utter joy, this is only the first of many long-tailed, shaggy-maned creatures, especially once I happen upon one of their watering holes, where I witness their hustle and bustle.

The visitors range from loners to groups of a few dozen. Bands of testosterone-laden teenagers wrangle for dominance. Most of their bickering appears playful, but scarred hides suggest more serious horseplay.

Harems of mares with colts are herded by alpha studs who bare their teeth and nip or kick at potential rivals too close for comfort. I am unaware that horses live in traditional family units, but one particular clan convinces me otherwise. It consists of the putative father, the mother, a foal likely born this spring, who is her steady shadow, and a yearling. Even though it seems physiologically improbable, she appears pregnant again, judging by her belly bulge. Those four stick together closely, and he makes sure to keep intruders at leg’s length.

The horses’ routines are dominated by foraging for food and water. Frequent water breaks are essential on this 80 plus-degree day. Each adult requires 10 to 12 gallons daily, nursing mares twice as much. The region’s 7 to 12 inches of annual precipitation, insufficient to meet demand, are supplemented by human hands.

In a landscape devoid of trees, the animals are entirely at the mercy of the elements — scorching sun in summer, cutting cold in winter. Pesky flies cause torment. Hefty breezes create constant clouds of dust. My car and everything in it, myself included, wears a veneer of desiccated earth. During my sojourn I wait out a violent storm in the vehicle. The horses have no shelter from the impressive claps of thunder, intimidating flashes of lightning, and inundating squalls of rain. I imagine them huddled together, with the little ones protected in the center as best as possible.

I relish my twenty-four hours at Sand Wash, where the air is scented by sage each time I brush against the silvery shrubs. I hear only the whistling of the wind and the birds, the whinnying of the mustangs, and the wailing of coyotes at night. But my observations make me question some of my presuppositions. Life for the horses, though free, comes at a price. Certainly it is no picnic. Most herds live in a desert-like environment. Do they enjoy their existence? Would they be better off not having to fend for themselves? Do we keep them wild to support our own romantic notions? Wild steeds in the Wild West?

This question remains relevant in light of a perpetual quandary. Since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by Congress in 1971, the Bureau for Land Management (BLM) manages and protects the equines named therein. The program has always been controversial. The horses breed too successfully for their own good. Without predators, their count doubles every four years, necessitating the regular thinning of herds. Sand Wash can sustain about 300 horses, but is shouldered with 600. Captured animals are sold to private buyers promising their humane treatment, but many linger on feedlots, and some die. The practice of darting mares with contraceptives has been hampered by logistics and cost. Cattlemen have opposed the program from the beginning, because of competition for grazing land. Now the current US government wants to reduce spending by at least 10 million dollars, by allowing the horses’ sale to organizations which could resell them to neighboring countries where butchering is legal.

Population densities exceeding available habitat results in disease, starvation, and death. The corpse I see stretched out among the sparse vegetation is a sobering sign. Without question, something must be done. I understand the arbitrariness of considering some animals suitable for human consumption, and of excluding others. For my sensibilities, horsemeat need not, should not be the answer. Birth control and adoption ought to continue and broaden, with the understanding that the adoptees will be treated well.

The 2005 memoir, The Pastures of Beyond, by writer and conservationist, Dayton O. Hyde (born 1925), shows that the present dilemma is not new, but also suggests an alternative approach. In 1988 he used his experience as a cowboy, ranch owner, and horse lover to purchase land and establish the Black Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota for supernumerary BLM quadrupeds. Kudos to him for translating his passion into a dream come true — for him, and for the animals. On page 243 of the first hardcover edition he reflects, “High on the ridges above the Cheyenne River, I see wild horses running in pure joy…I have been able to give the wild horses over ten thousand horse years of freedom, but what is really important is this. There are still some of us who care.“

I admire his dedication and wish for more dreamers and visionaries who care, and who will follow in his (horse)tracks.

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Great Blue Hunter

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is North America’s largest and most ubiquitous heron. This long-legged and long-necked slate gray and blue wading bird is hard to miss.

Tall, slender, elegant, it often stands motionless, statuesque, at the water’s edge, seemingly at ease.

But appearances are deceptive. With the speed of lightning it thrusts its head and neck under water and impales or grabs its prey with its dagger-like bill.


The bulge in the neck is caused by the food bolus.

Ready to look for the next meal.


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The Original South Park

     What is now Colorado was once the domain of the Utes. According to their tradition, they always lived in this region, in contrast with American Indian groups who were pushed westward while trying to stay ahead of the incessant march of white newcomers. Also known as The Mountain People, their homeland stretched from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains all the way to present-day Utah, hence that state’s name.

     From Colorado Springs, US Highway 24 travels through Ute Pass, one of the main natural corridors into the high country. Local bands of Utes overwintered in the milder climate at the foot of Pikes Peak, then migrated along the pass to their hunting grounds at South Park in the summer. By all accounts, this was teeming with bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk. Along the South Platte River which courses like an emerald ribbon through this otherwise semi-arid habitat countless beaver also abounded.

     The modern-day visitor enjoys a jaw-dropping view of that somewhat unexpected landscape from the top of 9504 foot-tall Wilkerson Pass, 60 miles west of Colorado Springs (see featured image above). From the Pass, one drives down into the flat and open expanse of South Park.

Driving from Wilkerson Pass into South Park

One of three so-called parks in Colorado’s topography, along with Middle and North Parks, the name was derived from “parc”, a designation by French trappers for mountain basins rich in game. They were among the early exploiters of nature’s wealth.

     In the vastness of South Park, I try to envision the area without fences, houses, roads, and cars, when it was crisscrossed only by paths wide enough for animals and people on horseback. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, one feels reduced in size — a speck of sand on this dusty soil which was nonetheless replete with prairie grasses, fragrant sagebrush, and further forage nutritious enough to sustain large numbers of herbivores.

     Conjuring images of tens of thousands of buffalo is challenging. Their bounty is long gone. In typical, short-sighted European fashion, most of these humpbacked, shaggy ungulates were hunted to the brink of extinction. The near-erasure of the animal iconic of the American West is a sad story. Even sadder is the subsequent loss of the homeland of the Utes, who had coexisted with and whose livelihood depended on those beasts since time immemorial. They were driven from their territory, to reservations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah which could not sustain their way of life.

     But there is hope for the natural balance of South Park. Descendants of the North American Bison were successfully reintroduced and can be seen munching on what, to our eyes, appears sparse sustenance. Their comeback to the environment to which they were perfectly adapted has been slow but steady, even though their numbers are minimal compared to those heady days.

American Bison (Bison bison) in South Park

The next generation

The same is true for the fastest land animal of the Western Hemisphere which formerly had to outsprint the now-extinct American Cheetah.

North American Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), female on the left, male on the right

     Many generations have come and gone since Manifest Destiny stood as an unquestioned conviction, and we have tried to remedy some, though not all of our misguided beliefs. Just as bison have been returned to South Park, might the same be possible for the Utes, whose existence once was inextricably linked with them? In southwest Colorado, the Sleeping Ute Mountain dominates the scenery. According to Ute legend, one day the chief will rise from his slumber, and with him his people.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

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One year ago today, I published my first post. Thank you for following my blog.

Operation Bunny Rescue

     Rabbit populations undergo ten-year cycles of ups and downs, and according to local biologists, their numbers peaked two years ago. We had a first inkling of this in 2015, when hordes of small critters overran the yard, and sprinted from the car’s headlights left and right at dusk and dawn. A more immediate reminder was the unexpected presence of a tiny ball of gray in the window well of our downstairs bedroom which we detected after a rustling sound reached our half-awake ears through the window. To say we were surprised to find a rabbit in the hole is an understatement. Was this a dream, and would Alice follow?

     We did not know if it had fallen down 4 feet from ground level, or crawled through a French drain (if it had, it did not want to leave again that way), but we were relieved to detect no obvious injuries. The velvety baby simply sat there, twitching its teeny nose, tilting its delicate ears this way and that.

     How to rescue this little creature? When we slid open the window and removed the screen, the cottontail vanished into the drain, only to reappear a few minutes later. It stayed close to this escape hatch, and availed itself of it each time we tried to catch it. After what amounted to at least one hour, it finally hopped far enough away for us to cover the hole and to capture it in a blanket. We carried it outside, where it scurried underneath a juniper bush and sat nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened.

     When nighttime noises emerged from the window well last May, we looked at one another in disbelief. We closed the window and waited till daybreak, but otherwise repeated the same procedure as before. In the course of the summer, we had to perform this ritual twice more, and successfully released bunnies number two, three, and four. We suspected them of playing a game of dare: Who gets to keep us busy the longest?

     According to scientific predictions, rabbit numbers are trending downward, and we were hoping for an uneventful season. But 2017 did not disappoint and brought no change to their tendency to disrupt our slumber. To our knowledge, this house had not seen an animal rescue in almost thirty years, but now we are three for three. Apparently they are not interested in statistics.

     After bunny number five it’s finally time to consider window well covers!

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The Bella Saga

     It is not my habit to leave our neighborhood via this particular street, but when I do so on this morning, it alters the remainder of my day. From the corner of my eye I see a canine running loose, sniffing at a fellow dog nose through a fence. For a moment I debate how to proceed, before I pull the car over to the side of the road. I cautiously approach and soothingly talk to her. Her eye-catching tall and slender body is covered with a whitish coat. When she turns toward me, I stare into a pair of striking husky-like eyes. She wags her tail and allows me to examine a frayed rope wrapped around her neck. Unfortunately, she does not wear a collar or alternative identification. Once I take her lead, she follows me willingly, and we walk along some of the nearby streets, hoping to run into her owner. Her healthy coat and clipped claws suggest that she is not homeless.

     My search is fruitless, but I receive helpful suggestions from local dog owners, and my foundling and I visit a vet office. An ID chip is detected under the skin and I learn her name – Bella. How apropos. The assistant even reaches her owner by telephone. What good luck, I think, until I learn that, sadly, she no longer has any interest in taking her pet back. Reportedly, Bella is an escape artist and she can deal with her no longer. Now I am faced with the decision of whether or not to become a dog owner (again). My husband and I agree that it is not feasible at this point.

     Besides, Bella does not want to be adopted by us anyhow. Demonstrating her fugitive tendencies repeatedly in the ensuing hours, she attempts to dig out under our fence and finally clambers over it and trots down the alley behind the house. I am able to recapture her and am grateful and relieved when another couple volunteers to either keep her, or to find her a new home. I much prefer this option to taking her to the humane society. But soon after I drop Bella off at their home, she acts aggressively toward one of their dogs, and her propensity to seek her freedom yet again overcomes any potential desire or need to settle down and be taken care off. Soon thereafter she is observed running along a busy street, with a dog catcher in hot pursuit. Ironically, the humane society is getting involved after all.

     Even though we spent only part of a day together, my thoughts often return to it, and I see Bella’s hauntingly beautiful eyes before me. For a while, we found an occasional white hair on our carpet or in the car, having eluded the vacuum cleaner. Should we have kept her and tried to make her stay? Even now I sense that she would not have altered her ways, a lot of love and attention notwithstanding, and we weren’t ready for the drama of having to chase her down regularly.

     I wonder where she is now, but I have resisted the urge to learn about the outcome of that particular episode involving us, which sounds like only one in a long line of escapades. Instead, I choose to envision her running wild with a clique of coyotes on the prairie, or with a pack of wolves in Yellowstone. The alternative is too sad. Bella is a free spirit, and I naively hope that there remains room in our world for free spirits to roam.

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The Handmaid’s Tale-Some Thoughts

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale in February 2017, little did I know how much this novel by contemporary Canadian author Margaret Atwood (born 1939) would be in the press a few months later. As it turned out, it was serialized for Hulu, a video on demand service, with the season premiere having been broadcast in late April. Because the title is so hot at present, I decided to join the fray.

The book was on my TBR list for a long time and I finally relented to my nagging literary conscience. The Handmaid’s Tale was my first exposure to a bestselling writer who has garnered too many literary honors to mention, and been nominated for many more. I am no particular fan of dystopian literature, and since my exposure to required classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm in high school, I have not often delved into this genre. Even though I can’t claim to have liked Margaret Atwood’s story, I am, nonetheless, glad I read it.

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic, theocratic, totalitarian state (presumably the US), where environmental degradation has engendered infertility in many women, the ruling-class families keep “handmaids” for the sole purpose of procreation. These maids are put through a process of brainwashing and are not supposed to have their own thoughts or opinions. The novel’s “heroine”, if she deserves this title, is Offred. This translates to “Of Fred”, based on the name of the man she is assigned to, as she is not entitled to her own. Her only reason to exist is to bear healthy children to the so-called elites. To optimize the human birthing machine, her monthly hormonal fluctuations are minutely monitored. When the time is right, the handmaids undergo a ritual cleansing, before exposing only the prerequisite body part to their perpetrators, in a grotesque and dehumanizing “ceremony”.

Despite the system’s best efforts at enforcing subjugation and conformity, Offred remembers a life before the takeover. During an attempt to flee to a neighboring country (presumably Canada), she and her family were overtaken. Her husband was almost certainly assassinated, and her daughter abducted and adopted by one of the leading families. Offred’s dream of a reunion motivates her to keep on living, if that is what her existence can be called, instead of escaping it through suicide, a popular way out for many handmaids, despite the rulers best attempts at removing all means to effect it.

Offred’s hope is buoyed when she meets a fellow servant who, like herself, does not appear fully assimilated, even if she can’t be sure that this other woman is not a spy. Dissenters who are caught suffer a horrendous public execution portrayed in bone-chilling detail. When Offred is picked up by a van, the usual means of apprehending and transporting traitors to these show trials, neither she nor the reader knows if her captors represent friends or foes, and the tale culminates in this cliffhanger.

While I found it impossible to “enjoy” the nightmarish world created by Margaret Atwood, I enjoyed her masterful narrative style. The degree to which the choice and pace of language reflected Offred’s inner and outer life was remarkable. Her tedium and boredom were expressed by ambling phrases, her fear and panic by staccato-like sentences. Despite my constant sense of reluctance, the book was a page-turner.

The fear of totalitarian regimes, the loss of women’s rights, and the destruction of habitat is as relevant today as it was in 1985, when the novel was first published. Is it the responsibility of literature to address and elucidate current concerns, rather than to simply entertain? To prodesse aut delectare (instruct and delight), as Horace posited, or merely to delectare? What are your thoughts?

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An Ode to Fountain Creek Regional Park

In recent years, the need to immerse myself in nature has become paramount. I feel fortunate that, despite Colorado’s growing population with its attendant problems, I still have access to spaces which promise solitude and an escape from continually calamitous news. One such refuge is Fountain Creek Regional Park, about eight miles south of our Colorado Springs home. It assumes a central role in my life and hardly a week goes by without a visit.

Starting as a county park in 1985, it has grown to its current size through gradual additions. The Fountain Creek Nature Center was completed in 1992, and expanded in 2014. Run by the devoted Nancy Bernard, a gaggle of paid staff, and a flock of volunteers, it fosters curiosity about the environment with its engaging exhibits, year-round youth programs, and an inviting trail system. Its incredibly scenic window and porch afford sweeping sights of our fourteener, Pikes Peak, and of its lower neighbors. Located at the boundary of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area benefits from the vital presence of water because it straddles our region’s largest stream, Fountain Creek. This provides live-giving liquid to a string of ponds with surrounding wetlands, and to copses of cottonwood trees with a dense understory, thereby creating a variety of habitats. Springtime with its lengthening days and warming temperatures engenders an eruption of greenery, fragrant bushes, and animal activity.

View of Pikes Peak from one of the ponds in the Cattail Marsh

The park is among El Paso County’s prime birding sites, and the number of reported species stands at 266 (according to ebird). Alas, I haven’t witnessed even half of that count, and some that were sighted decades ago likely won’t return during my lifetime. I make a game of assigning one signature bird to my favorite spots, and here, Red-winged Blackbirds rule the roost. Theirs are typically the first and most vociferous voices heard upon opening the car door in the nature center’s parking lot, because of the proximity of their realm, cattail marshes. The male’s squeaking and squealing sounds conspire with his curious comportment to garner attention. While balancing on top of a reed, he projects his head, pumps his arms, and fans his tail, communicating his earsplitting invitation to his companions.

Red-winged Blackbird, aka Superman in his cape

Blackbirds are not the exclusive exuberant and effusive members of the avifauna presently engaged in singing, feeding, mating, nest-building, or rearing their young, and with spring migration only ratcheting up, they will soon be joined by many more. Instead of attempting to enumerate all the uncommonly handsome callers, I will let a few photos speak for themselves.

Cooper’s Hawk

Belted Kingfisher: quite the hairdo

Great Horned Owl

White-faced Ibis

Great Blue Heron: a dude with a ‘tude

Plumed creatures are not the only tenants of this territory. Even though muskrats are theoretically nocturnal like their cousins, the beavers, they are diurnal enough to show their fuzzy faces in full daylight frequently. On warm days, turtles scramble onto exposed rocks. Available space is at a premium, and late-comers slide back into the pond to seek a sunny spot elsewhere. White-tailed Deer graze stretches of grassland but, to my surprise, even sample algae in shallow pools. Much squirrely commotion results in more photogenic moments. Rabbits browse in the underbrush and, no doubt, support the raptor population. Monarchs, and the park’s inspirational role in their preservation and propagation, were the topic of a previous post. A variety of butterflies and bees flutter and fly from blossom to perfumed blossom, filling the air with the faint flipping of their wondrous wings while performing the essential task of pollination.


Sunning turtles

White-tailed deer after an aquatic snack

Squirrel, also catching some rays

Doubtless, all this vibrancy is one of the reasons I crave this cherished sanctuary, where I can daily experience nature’s life-affirming powers which, in turn, make me feel more alive and hopeful.

Dedicated to my late mother-in-law, Hilda J. Britton (1928-2017), who loved Fountain Creek and Bear Creek Regional Parks so much, that she flew with the flock of volunteers for a number of years.

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