Fighters for Freedom

Dust clouds swirl in the air, rising up from the earth in great plumes. Beyond the haze, tall white-capped Nevada Mountains stand erect in the distance; a gulf of rolling plain separates them from the next cluster of mountains. A helicopter’s blades cut through the air, flying low over the range in pursuit of what’s hidden under the large mass of dust: wild horses.
The herd runs for their life; eyes rolled back in fear, sweat running off their tired bodies. Soon, the helicopter chasing them will herd them into a small, high-fenced corral where the horses will be pushed and prodded into a trailer leading them to what could be their deaths.
What were once proud, American symbols of the Wild West are now disappearing faster than sand through an hourglass- more than 270,000 wild horses have been removed from public lands since 1971 by a government appointed agency. The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, is responsible for dispatching wild horses off public lands in order to keep the number of wild horses and burros from overpopulating and crowding grazing room for cattle. But wild life activists claim that wild horses barely enter grazing land designated for cattle. Activists also argue the species will become extinct if the number of wild horses taken off the land stays the same.
These animals are protected under an Act of Congress passed in 1971. Wild horses and burros are placed under protection of the “Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act,” which is designed to keep wild horses and burros on public lands to save biological diversity and represent the spirit of the Wild West. Though the BLM has practically disregarded this act, there is still hope for wild horses. Many guardians are working to save these animals’ freedom. One of those guardians is Suzanne Roy.
Roy is a 20-year animal welfare advocate. She now serves as director for the American Wild Horse Preservation, fighting for the rights of wild horses and burros in America.
She joined AWHP in 2010 when the wild horse issue heated up. With a background in politics, Roy has helped AWHP become a leader in the fight for wild horse welfare, but the job hasn’t been an easy one.
“A culture of treating wild horses like livestock instead of managing them as a wildlife species has made changing this mindset very difficult. Government agencies view wild horses as a resource to be periodically slaughtered, whereas Congress has deemed wild horses worthy of protection,” Roy explained.
With a small staff, a “crushing” workload and “a very difficult issue,” as Roy stated, the challenge of working for AWHP is tough. Roy in particular, as director, deals with raising funds, managing finances, donor relation and media relations, policy, lobbying and coalition relations. Creating political strategies, writing briefs for Congress, writing press releases, blogs and web articles, reviewing BLM policies, devising press strategy and social media campaigns are just a few parts of the work she has to do.
Roy works 10 to 12-hour days, and many times, weekends too. But it’s worth it to Roy.
“After working on presidential elections in 1998, I decided to apply the political skills I had gained to my passion, which was protecting animals,” Roy said.
Roy first had contact with the wild horse issue when she was working at an animal protection group. She met Neda DeMayo, the founder of Return to Freedom which is AWHP’s parent organization, in the early ‘90s and stayed in contact with DeMayo over the years. When Roy’s daughter took an interest in horses, she reconnected with DeMayo and started visiting the Return to Freedom horse sanctuary often, which eventually led to the offer of being director for AWHP.
Roy’s career in animal welfare wasn’t her first plan though. Growing up with a father very involved in politics, he sparked a political fire in Roy.
“My first memory is of the day President Kennedy was shot. I was just three. This had a big impact of my family. After that, my father instilled in me a sense of public service and interest in politics.”
Though even with a political-rich childhood, Roy took the pre-med path at Boston College, but after graduation, she realized medicine was not what she wanted to do with her life. Her friend’s father, who was running for Congress, offered Roy a job as his personal travel agent. This was the toehold that launched Roy into the world of politics. After, she started working in the Lt. Governor’s office and received an informal education in public relations via the Lt. Governor’s press secretary.
“He took me under his wing and taught me everything I know about PR,” Roy said.
After that politics became her life. Roy worked on multiple campaigns, including being the press secretary for Gary Hart, the press advance for Joe Biden and Jesse Jackson, all during their presidential campaigns. Eventually, she focused her political skills on her passion: helping animals.
Roy explained, “For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. I have rescued many dogs and cats, and I became a vegetarian at 19.”
Now, her full attention is on the plight of wild horses and burros. Before her role as director, there were only 2,400 people signed up to receive emails about updates of AWHP’s work. Now with her work, AWHP has reached 100,000 sign ups. But generating email sign-ups is only one part of a large goal.
Roy details the goal of AWHP as this:
“The idea was to create a coalition through which wild horse advocates could speak with one voice and to facilitate the development of unified positions on the varied issues affecting wild horse management on public lands.”
There are many other organizations and campaigns like AWHP too. They all have the same goal in mind: help protect and defend wild horses’ right to live freely.
Through working at AWHP, Roy has had the opportunity to meet many “colorful people and great horses” along the way. She’s had many different experiences, but there are some memories that still stand out in Roy’s mind.
One of them was Roy’s first time watching a herd of wild horses in person in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Witnessing the horses up close allowed Roy to really understand “the dynamics of this small family and how they loved each other.”
Another was seeing her first BLM roundup, which wasn’t as pleasant an affair as the first memory.
“It was devastating to watch horses being chased by helicopters and see them lose their freedom and their families in an instant. A stallion died in front of me from a broken neck while charging the bars of the trap pen. I have seen other roundups since then, and to this day the sound of helicopters anywhere gives me a sick feeling in my stomach.”
The fight for wild horses and burro’s freedom is a long and complicated one. Apart from the main task of convincing the government to keep more wild horses free, which is a challenge within its self, there are other tasks that prove just as hard.
“Just making sure we have the funds to pay for our programs and other ones we want to launch is difficult,” Roy explained. “A lot of what we do would be very appropriate for funding from foundations, but it is difficult to find the time to get funding for our work.”
Regardless of the challenges Roy faces, protecting America’s last symbol of the Wild West is something she is dedicated to. Living in North Carolina, Roy makes monthly trips to D.C. for lobbyist activities, but she expects to move back to California, where she resided previously, to be closer to the wild horses.
While some people spend their lives only voicing their own problems, Suzanne Roy spends hers being the voice for creatures who don’t have one.

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