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Wild horses are more than just gorgeous, powerful creatures. To movie maker James Kleinert, the majestic animals are symbols of our freedom that he believes is as endangered as the mares and stallions in the American West.

James Kleinert is a spy of sorts.
The documentary maker has spent the past decade on horseback, galloping across plains and prairies, camping out under the stars, and trailing the subject of his deep fascination: the American wild horse. He’s fascinated by them. “I even dream about wild horses,” he says. And in the same way that he’s learned about their intricate family structure—the lead stallion that protects and the lead mare that leads them to food and water—he’s also discovered firsthand the tremendous dangers they face.

He says that at the turn of the 20th century, there were 2 million wild horses, but now only 15,000 remain, despite Congressional actions taken 40 years ago designed to protect them as emblems of our national heritage. Kleinert says the biggest threat to the wild horse has nothing to do with shortage of food or water, the message the U.S. federal government conveys.

“The wild horse is resilient,” he says, “there are adequate resources” for their survival in the wild. What is threatening to make them extinct, he says, are the actions of the Bureau of Land Management—the federal agency charged with managing public lands and overseeing the welfare of the wild horse. Instead BLM is driving the horses off the land—corraling them and then putting them up for adoption, as well as shipping them to food processing plants in Mexico, where they end up in food.

His latest documentary, Wild Horses & Renegades, is his attempt to open the eyes of the American public to what is happening on public lands, and why. The problem in a nut shell: “BLM makes millions of dollars from leasing out public lands” — to ranchers as well as mining and extraction companies exploring for gas and oil; on the other hand, BLM doesn’t make a penny from the horses that for generations have roamed the plains and since 1971 have been protected by the Free Wild Horses Roaming Act.

The presence of the horses can throw a wrench into operations—because the animals expose toxic practices, which he says wouldn’t be taking place if the corporations were following the country’s environmental standards. “It’s totally irresponsible,” he says. And when wild horses drink from the toxic ponds left behind by mining with sulfuric acid or fracking, they die. “They’re an indicator species,” Kleinert explains.

As a result of ranching and farming the numbers of horses began dwindling in the beginning of the 20th century, but the poisoning of their environment by corporate actions—and more pointed roundups of horses by “the best government money can buy” have been driving the creatures off the land—with helicopters and trucks driving them into corrals, where they are put up for adoption or sent to slaughterhouses. In Wild Horses & Renegades, the film maker has enlisted the help of celebrities from Willie Nelson to Darryl Hannah to publicize what is happening.

He says the concerted attempt to diminish the wild horse mirrors what is happening on every level of American life – from illegal degradation of the environment to the shredding of our civil rights. The film, released this July on the Documentary Channel, will be followed by two sequels, and Kleinert believes that when Americans understand what is happening they will step in to stop the ravaging of the wild horse. “It’s going to snowball,” he says. “When people understand the slaughter of the American wild horse, things will begin to change.”

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About Melissa Rossi

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Melissa Rossi's first words were, "Get me outta here!" She's been moving around since she was 17 — living in Seattle, Portland and assorted other parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as in New York, Vermont, and Florida (let's not talk about Iowa and Kentucky). After writing a book about Courtney Love (Courtney Love: Queen of Noise), which Courtney didn't like, Rossi decided to become a world traveler, and has visited most European countries. She has also lived in assorted parts of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Fluent in "Spitalnishsian" — an Italian, Spanish blend with a dash of Russian thrown in — Rossi has written for such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Newsweek, MSNBC and George, and is the author of What Every American Should Know about the Rest of the World (Plume/Penguin, 2003). A chronic sufferer of "Urban Deficit Disorder" — she can't focus on one city for long — Rossi probably will never settle down long enough to call one place her home.

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