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Photo: Michael Partenio
It all began with a John Wayne movie.
While she herself has an exotic background—born in Kirkuk, Iraq to a British father and a Lebanese mother, Madeleine Pickens grew up in various locales around the world—it was America’s Wild West heritage that captured her imagination. After going to the then-British Bahamas in 1966, she arrived in the United States in 1969 on a green card, later becoming an American citizen and eventually a resident of Dallas.
When asked what attracted her to America, she is effusive. “Oh, gosh! Watching all the American movies—John Wayne and cowboys—oh, it was so exciting! I mean, what a sexy history you guys have—and I’m part of it now!” she says gleefully.
“Remember the show Bonanza [and] the Ponderosa?” she continues, caught up in the nostalgia. “I used to watch that show, and I hated it when it came to an end, and then you had to wait until the next week. I absolutely loved it. I used to envy [actress] Linda Evans, having all those brothers, living that life on the range. It was so, so beautiful. I was certainly going to run off with John Wayne; there was no question. All that was so dreamy,” she says, laughing at the memory.
Wild, Wild Horses
It’s that romanticism, coupled with a sense of moral responsibility, which has led Pickens where she is today. Along with her husband, T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oilman who has embraced alternative energy, she is co-founder of the nonprofit Saving America’s Mustangs (savingamericasmustangs.org), the goal of which is to establish a permanent home for wild horses and burros.
Pickens’ love affair with animals began early. “We had Labradors growing up. My father loved dogs. He used to go hunting, much to my [dismay]. Every Friday night, the guns would come out, and the dogs would get so excited, and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited to play with me anymore. They knew their big weekend was here.”
Pickens went on to become a successful racehorse owner and breeder, but it is America’s wild mustangs that have become her focus. “I came here, and I never saw the wild animals, and I didn’t know much about [the situation],” she says, referring to the more than 30,000 wild horses and burros that are being kept in short- and long-term holding areas, many of them for years and in less-than-ideal conditions.
“I was devastated when I found out, but also delighted that I had the opportunity to jump in and fix it and then find a way to bring pleasure to the American public,” says Pickens, who envisions the creation of a horse eco-sanctuary as an opportunity to recapture the Wild West on a grand scale—“like a Yellowstone.”
“People can come [and] bring their families…to a living museum where they can see these horses roam, have documentaries, have campgrounds where the kids can come. [School children] all go to Washington at some point in their lives [to see] the monuments. They can go to Nevada [where half of the country’s wild horses are found] and visit Mustang Monument and see all of this and be educated—classes and campfires and teachers. I’m very, very excited about it all. I’ve had a lot of interest from all different [sectors] of the United States, which shows that people love this [idea].”
To see her dream become reality, Pickens has had to deal with government bureaucracy and has learned the wheels of change turn very slowly, which she attributes to something she jokingly refers to as the “NIH theory”—Not Invented Here.
“When you bring something new to the table—and for 40 years they’ve been doing it one way—it’s difficult for people to switch gears. I think sometimes you can be too close to an issue, and it’s tougher to see how you can fix things,” she says, referring to the Bureau of Land Management, which is currently responsible for overseeing the welfare of wild horses and burros.
To help create awareness of her plan, which involves persuading legislators to pass a law converting the 1 million acres of land necessary to accommodate the animals from cattle-grazing to horse-grazing, Pickens’ Saving America’s Mustangs foundation has staged several pregame and halftime tributes held at college football games. The foundation also has created a 25-member advisory board, which includes a number of
well-known Texans. Among them are T. Boone Pickens, Chairman June Jones, Jerry Jones, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Mark Cuban, and others.
The key difference in her plan, Pickens stresses, is the stipend paid by the government will not go into private hands (as it does now); it will stay with the foundation. She emphasizes the foundation cannot use the money for anything other than taking care of the land, so that the horses are provided for.
During the course of her campaign, she has discovered the power of the grassroots movement. At the time of this writing (late 2009), supporters of Pickens’ vision had submitted nearly 12,000 signatures to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the BLM. She urges those who are interested to go to her website (madeleinepickens.com), where they can sign up for alerts. “The wonderful thing about the Internet is that you [can] educate and inform the public about issues they didn’t know existed,” she says. “Let’s face it, I didn’t know about these issues [before].”
Pickens recalls the first time, from the view of a helicopter, that she saw horses running wild. “It was just one of those life-changing days where you say, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I want to bring back and share with people.’ We can’t let these animals be gathered and thrown into a world of sadness and horror and slaughter. That’s got to end. It’s too beautiful a part of life.”
Not only does Pickens want to provide a sanctuary for the mustangs, but she would like to see them accorded the same respect as the bald eagle. Curious about the bald eagle’s status, she recently had the opportunity to see hundreds of them on Stuart Island in Canada and only then did she realize their beauty and majesty. “It was great,” she says, “but it certainly didn’t impress me as much as if I saw thousands of wild mustangs thundering by, their manes flowing in the wind. How can you not think of them [as a national symbol]?”
“I think it’s a very sexy heritage,” Pickens continues. “In [this] great country, that’s how the West was formed—people came out on wagon trains. When I’m flying across the country and traveling and looking at some of the land those people had to cross, you say, ‘How on earth did they do it?’ There were Indians, there were cowboys; I find the whole thing beautiful. What an outrageous history this country has! It’s beautiful, so I think it’s a shame we’ve forgotten our history.”
When asked if she would like saving the wild horses to be her legacy, Pickens replies, “It’s part of my life. Some people care very much about a legacy. I only care that I took care of my footprint. I’m sure that I’ll launch some other projects because I actually enjoy fixing things.”
Pickens says she found her John Wayne in husband Boone. Just don’t expect them to ride off into the sunset anytime soon. “We have a moral responsibility in life. Everybody has a footprint. Not just a carbon footprint, but the footprint of life,” Pickens says with conviction. “I feel I’ve got so much more to do.”
Saving America’s Mustangs