The unwanted horses seemed destined for death. The wheels had been set in motion to put down about 2,000 healthy mustangs, those in a federally maintained herd of wild horses and burros that no one wanted to adopt.
The Bureau of Land Management knew that euthanasia was a legal alternative, but officials were proceeding slowly, afraid of an intense public outcry. The wild horses had become too expensive to maintain, and cattlemen argued that turning them loose would be a drain on the already scarce grazing lands of the West.
Then, at a public hearing in Reno, Nev., on Monday to discuss the issue, a solution rode in.
Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, made known her intentions to adopt not just the doomed wild horses but most or all of the 30,000 horses and burros kept in federal holding pens. Lifelong animal lovers, the Pickenses just a few years ago led the fight to close the last horse slaughterhouse in the United States.
Madeleine Pickens is looking for land in the West that would be an appropriate home for the horses.
She is working with the BLM staff to adopt the horses, said Henri Bisson, the bureau's deputy director, while the agency persuades Congress to shift $20-million in funding to feed and protect the horses now in captivity for another year.
As backup to Pickens' offer, he said, two other groups, both animal rescue organizations, have expressed similar interest in adoption. "We are very hopeful that euthanasia won't be necessary this year," he said.
The news that Pickens and others intend to adopt the wild horses and burros was celebrated by animal rights groups, several of which were preparing legal challenges to prevent the government from putting the horses to death.
"Of course, I'm thrilled, obviously, that these horses are getting a reprieve," said Shelley Sawhook, president of the American Horse Defense Fund. "At the same time, we need to address the basic issue of how these animals got in this position in the first place."