Field work with the Gila herd: Dust, hard work and PB&J

Return to Freedom’s ongoing two-year Gila Herd Project relies upon the support of generous donors, partnerships with other organizations, the hard work of RTF staff and affiliated experts. Here, Celeste Carlisle looks back on her first days working with the herd.

By Celeste Carlisle

RTF Conservation Science Consultant

In the spring of 2017, field work to gather data about Return to Freedom’s newly rescued Gila Herd, as well as basic veterinary care and primer doses of the fertility control vaccine PZP, were begun at our leased holding facility in Fallon, Nevada.  We often gloss through the story: “We ran ‘em through chutes and vaccinated them.”  But, to put it lightly, field work tends to be fraught with the exciting and the unexpected — and also a heck of a lot of logistics.

A member of the Gila herd leaves the chute as Celeste Carlisle looks on.

Preparing to treat and collect samples and data on 120 wild horses takes some time.  Hair samples for genetic analysis will go to two different labs and a form must be filled out for each horse in advance so that the sample can be affixed to the proper form.  The truck must be packed with supplies:  vaccines, wormer, first aid kit, water, notebooks, syringes, tarps, ice chests, dry ice, gloves, random assorted emergency gear (for human, horse, or truck emergencies along the snowy pass).  This takes me all day.

I call my brother, Ethan, who is a geologist and works in the field and is just ending a job, and I tell him he should join me:  “I need the help, and it’ll be fun!”  I load up snacks (the always field-appreciated peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making supplies) and my two other field assistants (a chihuahua and a pug-pit-beagle-something-or-‘nother) and we lumber out of the driveway.

The immunocontraceptive vaccine has been special-ordered from our friends at the Science and Conservation Center – it is shipped on dry ice and must be received immediately.  It doesn’t arrive at my house before I need to leave, so I arrange to pick it up at the UPS distribution center partway to Fallon, a side trip I hadn’t anticipated, but a good one since it turns out to be a convenient spot to meet and pick up my road-traveling brother as well.

We drive over hill and dale (Donner Pass) in the dark and snow to my favorite hotel in Fallon (the pickings are slim.) When we arrive, it takes some finesse to offload ice chests, Rubbermaid containers of supplies, luggage, humans, and dogs into the hotel room.  My brother turns on the TV and promptly falls asleep.  I prep our clipboards and charts and mix many, many doses of the PZP vaccine late into the night.  We need to be at the holding facility early in the morning to meet the wranglers and the veterinarian.

Up at dawn, and the truck is reloaded.  The dogs are going nuts (they are big fans of field work).  My brother and I grab a not-very-good hotel breakfast, stop at the grocery store for cheap donuts for everybody, and head to the Gila’s very temporary home, just outside of town and next to the Fallon Naval Air Station (this will come into play later).  Mike Holmes, a tough and true Nevadan and a long-time wild horse professional, is waiting for us.

MIKE: “You’re LATE.”

ME: “Good morning, Mike!  This is my brother, Ethan.”

MIKE: “Uh-huh.”

Thomas Smittle is there, too, a tall and gifted horseman who can gently reach his long body from side to side and get a horse to move wherever it is necessary to move that horse.  Mike’s son Randy is there as well – he likes it when my brother and I give his dad a hard time, so we make sure we do so at every opportunity.  Photographer Steve Paige is here, too.  We happily greet each other.   Mike introduces us to one hell of a wild horse vet, Dr. Gerry Peck.   (Have I mentioned how fun this crew is to work with?)

The Gilas are located in two corrals near the livestock chute on the far side of a large cattle facility.  They’re in Nevada because the State will let us pull blood for Coggins tests here (necessary for transport across state lines), where there are alleys and chutes set up for just such testing.  We’ll spend today processing the mares and foals, so we feed them along a narrow alleyway leading to the livestock chute.  They don’t seem thrilled by the idea of leaving their large, open pen for a much smaller space, but alfalfa can convince even the stoniest among them.

While the horses settle, we organize the chute area and ourselves.  A small card table holds horse ID charts, vaccines, clipboards, and donuts.  (Everyone claims that they do not eat donuts, but I notice they are all gone within a short period of time.)  (And no, I did not eat them all…)

Flags with plastic bags attached to the ends lean on fence rails.  The worming medicine is loaded into a triggered syringe, which can be quickly administered into a horse’s mouth.   Our trucks are backed into the work area and their tailgates hold forms for the hair samples, as well as vacutainer tubes for blood and papers for the health and brand inspectors.  We outline our marching orders, gather our wits, start up the generator for the hydraulic chute, and begin a routine of contained chaos.

About this time, the fighter jets at the Fallon Naval Base commence their daily exercises.  Low.  Loud.  And directly overhead.

Thomas and Randy take up their positions in the alleyway, making sure they have one hand on the metal fence panels in case they need to haul themselves up and out of harm’s way.  They cut a few horses from the group and wave the plastic bag flags behind them so they advance through the alley, which gradually narrows so that the mares sort themselves into a single file line.  When three or four horses are in position, Thomas and Randy back off and I take over, pushing the mares forward, one at a time, into the livestock chute.  When a horse enters the chute, the door is closed behind them so that they are contained within a padded box.  Mike operates the hydraulics to gently squeeze the horse so that she will be safe and still.  There are many doors which can be opened to access a different part of the animal: head, neck, legs, hind end.  We work quickly so that the mare can be released quickly – no need to stress her unduly.

The vet is first, and he steps up, swings open the door near the mare’s neck, expertly draws blood and strategically pistons the wormer into her mouth so quickly that she hardly notices.  He gives two quick vaccinations, and then my brother steps in, wraps about twenty strands of mane hair around his gloved fingers, and gives a quick tug to extract the hair follicles, which are necessary for the genetic analysis.

Dr. Peck and my brother back away to fill out their respective data forms, and I step in to close the head door, open the hind quarters door and administer the PZP vaccine.  As I step away to record my own data and quickly draw identification markings onto the mare’s chart, Mike releases the mare from the chute and into a large catch pen and Steve fires off a quick round of identification photos: front view, left side, right side.  We communicate to each other by yelling over the din of the generator and the scream of the fighter jets: markings, age, and the horse’s assigned number.  We cross check our data sheets, and then we get ready to process the next horse: same positions, same procedure.

Mike thoughtfully allows us a lunch break after many, many hours.   We eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the backs of the trucks and drink copious amounts of water.  The dogs get a walk through the feedlot, and they find lots of gross detritus to sniff at and roll in.  The sun is high overhead, and bright, but there is a fine crispness to the air.  We’re feeling pretty good. My brother has forgotten to bring a hat, so he straps a gaudy, colorful bathing suit to his head, much to everyone’s delight.  We return to work and finish out the day.

When we’re done, the generator is shut down and the horses are herded back to their original paddock.  We throw them more hay, and they seem no worse for the wear.  The crew compares notes and charts to make sure we jotted everything down that we needed.  We pack up the trucks, stash supplies inside the chute for tomorrow, and head off down the road to dinner, showers, PJs, bad hotel TV, and an evening of checking over charts, updating files, and preparing for another day of field work.  Sun weary and exhausted, we fall into a heavy sleep.

And so on…