For at least two decades, Edith Ann belonged to everyone, and to no one. Nobody could agree how old she was, just that the little bay quarter horse had lived at California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area for as long as anyone could remember.
Three generations of park visitors knew Edith Ann, and many made a point of coming by the corral to see her. The horse would stand patiently as parents lifted their toddlers to touch her velvet nose. Even the tough kids who arrived in yellow school buses beamed when she accepted their warily outstretched carrots.
Those of us on the volunteer horse patrol figured Edith Ann to be somewhere around 25 -- about 75 in human years. Like the spunky little girl in the giant rocking chair played by Lily Tomlin on Saturday Night Live, our Edith Ann had attitude.
As part of my duties, I mucked stalls, fed and watered and rode for the federal government. On my assigned days at the barn, I brought Edith Ann her favorite snack of raisins, brushed her until she gleamed, picked the gunk out of her hooves and climbed on her back to head for the steep trails. Our job was to intercept speeding mountain bikers, dog walkers, wildflower rustlers and litterbugs. On one of those hills last year, Edith suddenly stopped, as if to say, "I don't think I can do this anymore." She limped back to the barn.
We iced and rested Edith's sore leg for much of the summer, but her limp worsened. By fall, we’d stopped riding her all together and talked of putting her out to pasture. But where? The park had no place to send its retired horses and no budget to feed one that couldn't earn her keep. The ranger in charge said he would "keep us advised." All the volunteers could do, it seemed, was worry. The e-mail arrived a few weeks into the New Year. "The recommendation is euthanasia."
But to my eyes, the mare, though clearly footsore, was as spunky as ever, eating heartily and bossing the geldings around the corral. In private hands, horses with Edith’s Ann’s ailment, ringbone -- a kind of osteoarthritis in the lower leg -- are commonly treated. The problem was that Edith wasn't a pet. She was federal property. And her career was over.
Hundreds of horses and mules work for the National Park Service, mostly in the West. They carry tools and supplies to backcountry work crews, pull cannons for battle re-enactments, and break up unruly demonstrators. No one knows what happens to most of the Park Service’s elderly equines, or keeps track of how many are sold, slaughtered, or euthanized because the agency has no further use for them.
A chosen few, like Francis the mule, who for more than 20 years dragged tourist barges up the capital’s C&O; Canal, are retired ceremoniously. Hundreds of people attended Francis’ sendoff to Jimmy Carter's boyhood home in Plains, Ga. It even aired on CNN.
But without a national policy or a place set aside for them, what happens to the government’s elderly equines is for each park to decide. Some rangers try to find adoptive homes for their aging mounts and "trail buddies." But there is no requirement that they do so. Of the more than 13 million acres of public land in the national park system, not one is dedicated to retiring its horses.
Animal lovers are a constant source of consternation to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Surrounded by more than 7 million residents of the Bay Area, no other national park is as much a part of the daily lives of so many. Public hearings are well attended and frequently dominated by those who argue their right to unleash their dogs or feed feral cats. The night before Edith Ann’s scheduled euthanasia, park superintendent Brian O'Neill received dozens of e-mails pleading for Edith's life; he decided to commute her death sentence.
It took a few hundred dollars and a few months to get Edith back on all fours, but this horse’s luck held: Upon hearing of her plight, a horse sanctuary in Davis, Calif., offered to take her in. When I visited Edith Ann last week, she jogged across her corral, put her velvet nose in my hand and demanded raisins.
Somewhere between 500 and 600 horses are owned by the National Park Service -- working as long as they are able. Like Edith Ann, they belong to everyone, and to no one.
Susan Ives is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Mill Valley, California, but no longer works with Park Service horses. “It is humbling,” she notes, “to be fired from a volunteer job that requires so much shoveling.”