Buffalo War & El Caballo

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2001:

The Buffalo War
by Matthew Testa & Bryan Cole
Independent TV Service
(51 Federal St., 1st Floor,
San Francisco, CA 94107), 2001.
PBS premiere on Nov. 1, 2001, 10 p.m.
60 minutes.

El Caballo:
The Wild Horses
of North America
by Doug Hawes-Davis
A Fund for Animals video produced by
High Plains Films (P.O. Box 6796, Missoula, MT 59807), 2001.
54 minutes. $25.00.

Blame George Stevens, who in 1953 gave western films a whole
new look by opening Shane with a leisurely view of the
soon-to-be-Grand Tetons National Park and used similar slow scenic
panoramas to punctuate his otherwise taut melodrama.
It worked on the big screen for Stevens, and even on the
small screen, where Shane remains one of the all-time most popular
westerns on video.
But the wide scenic shot used to create the illusion of
expanse works only in counterpoint to very tightly scripted conflict.
When the conflict consists of talking heads, speaking
extemporaneously, one at a time, and the action is also filmed
mostly at a distance, too many elements ramble over the foothills;
too little seems to move toward a point.
The Buffalo War, produced by Matthew Testa and Bryan Cole,
was named “Best Documentary” at the Newport International Film
Festival, and “Best Environmental Documentary” at the San Francisco
International Film Festival. Obviously some well-regarded critics
like it.
There are compelling stories within The Buffalo War. Lakota
Sioux elder Rosalie Little Thunder’s personal struggle on behalf of
the Yellowstone bison herd included a 500-mile midwinter march across
Montana two years ago, uniquely uniting Native Americans of many
tribes with animal defenders and environmentalists. Countless
confrontations have occurred between protesters and authorities,
especially Montana state officials hellbent on killing bison who
wander out of the park, lest the bison somehow transmit brucellosis
to livestock–a possibility much more hypothetical than demonstrable.
During the winter of 1988-1989, when Montana authorized sport
hunters to do the killing, D.J. Schubert of the Fund for Animals and
others on cross-country skis tried to chase bison away from the guns.
More recently, as a test-and-cull program has replaced kill-’em-all
as the basic modus operandi, activists have tried to keep bison out
of the huge corrals, where pregnant bison are always selected for
slaughter because brucellosis is most likely to be carried by
birthing fluids and tissues.
Despite the dramatic potential, however, and despite
including footage of many of the most tense and difficult moments,
The Buffalo War is really not as gripping, as a whole, as
five-minute TV news segments about the same things–and is not as
much more informative, either, as one might expect from the
60-minute length.
It could be cut to half an hour without losing much beyond
redundant dialogue and visual homage to George Stevens.
And it may soon be obsolete, if 15 former Soviet chemical
weapons researchers recently brought to Yellowstone by park
scientific branch chief John Varley are correct in their belief that
they already have a brucellosis vaccine more effective than any
developed in the U.S., plus the ability to quickly make an adequate
supply at the Pokrov Factory of Biopreparations. The Russian-made
vaccine could reportedly be deployed by 2004.

Horse epic

Doug Hawes-Davis also took the George Stevens approach in two
previous western documentaries, Varmints and Killing Coyote–both of
which are actually half an hour longer. El Caballo is contrastingly
tightly edited. It, too, includes much camera work seemingly
influenced by Stevens, but features a surprisingly considered
discussion of whether or not wild horses really belong on the western
Most viewers will probably have already made up their minds.
Most ranchers, hunters, many government agencies, and some
of the wealthiest and most influential conservation groups assert
that wild horses and burros are a so-called invasive species in North
America, brought by the Spanish, unfairly competing with wild
sheep, elk, deer, and pronghorn for habitat. They see the 1971
Wild & Free-Ranging Horse and Burro Protection Act as a sentimental
compromise of ecological principle, to be undone whenever possible.
Horse-lovers and animal rights activists, on the other hand,
have argued for decades that wild horses and burros are a vital
ecological component of North America because they evolved here
originally, before abruptly and mysteriously vanishing about 11,000
years before they were reintroduced.
The anti-wild horse faction has always dismissed this
argument out of hand as naive, pointing toward the immense habitat
changes that allegedly came between the end of the most recent ice
age and now.
El Caballo musters scientific experts from both sides to make
their cases. Jay Kirkpatrick, better known for his studies of
immunocontraception in wild horses, pulls all the loose ends
together. Kirkpatrick explains that whatever happened to the native
North American horses 11,000 years ago appears to have occurred even
more abruptly than the extinction of the dinosaurs. He adds that
since there are as yet no archaeological sites showing evidence that
horses were killed and eaten by humans who were just then invading
North America from Asia, the horses were apparently not hunted to
extinction. Kirkpatrick hypothesizes that horses might instead have
been killed by a fast-moving introduced disease. He notes that there
really have not been any big ecological changes in the American west
since then, other than the recent changes associated with human
settlement. And Kirkpatrick goes on to outline in detail the rapid
recovery of the former horse range by the first escaped Spanish
horses and their descendants. Obviously they were already supremely
well-adapted to the conditions they found.
Finally, Kirkpatrick mentions the hypothetical possibility
that the Spanish horses met and mingled with a few hardy bands of
survivors from the extinction event of 11,000 years earlier. The
absence of recent fossils of horses does not necessarily mean horses
had not survived in North America; it merely means that they had not
survived in great numbers on soils conducive to forming fossils.
Many other species known to have persisted here throughout the same
epoch also left little fossil trace.
In the end, El Caballo is an unexpectedly original treatment
of the rather familiar tragedy of wild horses. It can and will be
watched more than once.

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