Velma Bronn Johnston knew pain and suffering. Born to Joseph Bronn and Gertrude Clay in 1912, Velma, at eleven years of age contracted polio and was confined to a cast and hospitalization for several months. The disease left her physically disfigured, and the subject of ridiculing and cruelty by her schoolmates. Velma consoled herself with writing and drawing and taking care of the many animals on her parents’ ranch, the Double Lazy Heart Ranch in Reno, Nevada.
Velma had a particular love of horses, as did her father, who, as an infant came to the West with his parents in a covered wagon. It is said that during the during the arduous journey across the desert, his mother, for whatever reason, could not provide milk for him, so resorted to feeding him the milk of a Mustang mare–an act that saved his life. Later in life, Joseph Bronn, to help support his growing family and keep his ranch in operation, ran a freighting service. Many of the horses he used to pull the wagons were Mustangs.
While many of her peers made fun of Velma for her disfigurement, Charlie Johnston, a neighbor, became smitten with her. The two married and eventually took over Velma’s father’s ranch. To make extra money, Velma took a job as a secretary to insurance executive Gordon Harris and worked for him for the next forty years. Unable to have children of their own, Velma and Charlie also opened their home and ranch to many of Nevada’s youth, where they taught them how to ranch and care for animals.
One day, in 1950 while driving either to or from work (accounts vary,) Velma was following a stock trailer and noticed blood oozing from the bottom of the doors. She followed the truck and found out that the wild horses inside were on their way to a slaughterhouse. The blood came from a young foal who was being trampled to death by the frightened older horses.
During that time period, wild horses, many of them Mustangs, were captured and slaughtered for pet food. Their capture consisted of rounding them up with airplanes, and then once they were in a more cohesive group, trucks would chase them and the men hanging out of the windows or in the bed of the truck would lasso them to the ground. Horses who were more difficult to rope, were sometimes “hamstringed,” or shot in the back of the legs, rendering them unable to run. Then, the perpetrators crammed the frightened animals into stock trailers and took them to the slaughterhouse.
Velma’s witnessing of the gruesome scene as she traveled to or from work instigated her lifelong pursuit to stop the cruelty toward Nevada’s wild horses.
She began in the early 1950’s and succeeded with the 1955 bill in the Nevada State Legislature that banned aircraft and land vehicles from capturing wild animals on state lands. It was then she earned her nickname, “Wild Horse Annie.” But, Velma had a long way to go. She became a passionate speaker and made it her mission to save wild horses and burros throughout the nation. In 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law.
She also established wild horse refuges in the southwest. During the rest of her lifetime, she kept vigilant watch over America’s wild horses and called to task anyone who did not obey the laws she helped put into place. Wild Horse Annie worked hard to promote the idea that wild horses and Burros were “integral to the landscape” and seen as “living symbols of the pioneer spirit of the West.” She came up against many who wanted to silence her, and some even threatened her life, but Velma soldiered on.
After the death of her husband, Annie lived out the rest of her life with her mother. She died at age 65 in 1977 from cancer.