An interview with Running Wild director Suzanne Mitchell on the life and legacy of Dayton O. Hyde and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
A place where wild mustangs can run freely, uninhibited by humans or development, seems like a fantasy. But such places do exist. One is The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota. Founded by the inspirational Dayton O. Hyde, this sanctuary protects hundreds of wild horses on natural land.
The story of Dayton and his sanctuary was recently shared by film director Suzanne Mitchell in Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde. Suzanne joined us to answer some questions about the film, the sanctuary, and America’s wild horses.
EW: What inspired Dayton O. Hyde to become involved with conservation projects?
SUZANNE: From the time Dayton grew up, he was taught to appreciate wild lands and wild things. His father was a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, the same school former alumni and famed conservationist, Aldo Leopold, attended. Dayton’s father was an avid birder, and from the perch of his wheelchair (his father suffered from multiple sclerosis), Dayton was taught a deep understanding of nature.
Dayton O. Hyde is this century’s Aldo Leopold – a person who is rooted in the belief that humans should not have dominion over wildlife, but rather that they have a responsibility to protect all creatures and the ecosystems in which they naturally thrive. Dayton’s holistic view of the western prairies, combined with his ingenious, yet sometimes unconventional, practices have made a significant impact on the protection of a whole host of animal species, including the wolf, rainbow trout, coyote, sand hill crane, great gray owl, and porcupine.
His passion for preservation and conservation is also at the heart of his 13,000-acre wild horse sanctuary. The horses he rescues and manages have become his partners in saving this piece of land. Set up in a trust so it can never be developed, Dayton’s refuge for captive wild horses is a brilliant and effective solution to some of the most critical issues affecting the western range. At the same time, it provided Dayton with the means to save this historic tract of land without sacrificing the surrounding ecosystem. This magnificent stretch of land, nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is one of the few pieces of western range that remains untouched by development, and where wildlife can truly live and run free.
Through his non-profit Operation Stronghold, Dayton has helped other landowners establish a viable wildlife habitat on their private property. Between 1979 and 1987, the little known Stronghold program boasted over four million acres of protected private land.
Dayton is a living example of how a single individual, through a combination of science, compassion and common sense, can teach us all to exist not as masters of the natural world but as partners with it.
EW: What prompted you to embark on the documentary, Running Wild?
SUZANNE: In 1992, I was working on a People Magazine 20th anniversary special for ABC TV in New York when I stumbled on a story about Dayton O. Hyde and his Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Desperate to witness wild horses, I lobbied the Executive Producers to allow me to shoot this story for the TV special. I was told to keep the final cut to a minute-and-a-half, but after meeting Dayton I couldn’t help wondering how I was ever going to tell this man’s story in such a short time.
Twenty-two years later, Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde, captures the essence of a man who, as a cowboy, poet and inspiration, has handed his heart over to the west.
EW: What was the goal in creating the documentary?
SUZANNE: My goal in creating this film was to enlighten a new generation about the fragility of our planet by taking one man’s story and demonstrating how each of us has the power to make lasting change for the environment, and the creatures that inhabit the earth.
EW: Why is it important to conserve wild mustangs?
SUZANNE: It was on the backs of horses that we built America. They have been to war, delivered mail, pulled our carts and plows. Now it’s time we repay our debt to these strong, sensitive creatures.
EW: The mustang is an iconic symbol of the American Wild West. Do you think Americans still relate to wild mustangs the same way they did in the past? If not, in what ways has this changed?
SUZANNE: There are certainly many people who still feel, as Dayton does, that mustangs should remain wild and free. Many of these people reside in the rural prairies of the west, where the majority of wild horses still exist on public lands. As you move east across the States, I am constantly struck by the number of people who are not even aware of their existence, and certainly not aware that American tax dollars are supporting the government roundups and captivity of these majestic creatures.
As more and more people become aware of wild horses and their current plight, I find attitudes towards these iconic animals are shifting.
EW: What is involved with running a sanctuary on the scale of Black Hills?
SUZANNE: With 13,000 acres, 600 wild horses, 100 domestics, and 100 head of cattle, the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is a working ranch that is busy 365 days a year 24/7. Besides being a non-profit organization, the ranch is a major tourist attraction in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and they have over 10,000 visitors a year. Raising enough revenue to accomplish the tasks needed for an operation this size requires constant fundraising.
EW: How did the current team of people who work with Black Hills come about? How did they get involved with the organization?
SUZANNE: Susan Watt, an Alabama native, has the energy of a thousand wild horses. Working as program director at the sanctuary for more than 18 years, Susan has brought her people and marketing skills to help create one of the most memorable destinations for all those who want to experience the freedom of wild horses.
Susan came to the sanctuary after seeing a story about Dayton’s mission on a TV news program. After the tragic deaths of her daughter and then her husband, Susan sought new meaning in her life. Sitting in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti, trying to imagine what she was going to do now that her daughter and husband had passed, she recalled a news story she had seen on Dayton years earlier. She returned to the States with her own mission – to track down this cowboy and offer to lend a hand.
Karla LaRive joined the sanctuary as a volunteer in the 1990s after moving from the big cities of California and New York. A former production coordinator in the entertainment business, Karla has grown to become the sanctuary’s Communications, Media and Marketing Director. Working with international film crews and press, Karla helps Susan support another revenue stream that ultimately helps in the yearly budgetary needs of the sanctuary. Production crews and actors from major television programs and films like Hidalgo, Into The Wild, and Crazy Horse are greeted by Karla, who ensures they get a cinematic experience on the property.
EW: How can people get involved with preserving the wild mustang population?
SUZANNE: It’s simple. Go to WildMustangs.com and donate to non-profits like the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. It’s important to understand that these institutions have been created to provide the proper land, experience, and unwavering devotion to the rescue and protection of wild horses.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign
Founded in 2004 by Return to Freedom (RTF), the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign is one of the nation’s leading advocacy voices for America’s wild horses and burros. Endorsed by a coalition of more than 60 organizations, the campaign is dedicated to preserving wild horses and burros in viable free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage.
The Campaign asks for a redirection of federal resources to in-the-wild management of wild horses and burros. This would keep these animals on the range and save taxpayers millions annually by avoiding the mass removal and stockpiling of wild horses in government holding facilities. AWHPC also seeks to repeal “unlimited sale authority” that allows the sale of unadoptable wild horses and burros for slaughter. WildHorsePreservation.org