how it all started

In October 2010 I was in two minds whether to go or not. And then he sent me this photograph. A flayed horse had been left in the waste bin of the car park opposite his office.
That morning I called the airline and bought a ticket.
photo courtesy of Refah Seyed Mahmoud

Posted in discarded animals | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

the grizzly experience

Within days of arriving in town I am standing outside the cage of Tonka, a captive Grizzly who lives on grain and marshmallows. The first time I see him, Tonka and his owner are inside the cage together… it is an intimate moment. This is the American West as I had not imagined it.

Posted in captive animals, entertaining animals | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments


Ever since I stood outside the grizzly’s cage I have been thinking about Joseph Beuys and his coyote. In my pocket are Walt Earl’s signature coyote calls: handmade in their custom box. To Walt the coyote is a pest, a predator to be exterminated. To Beuys the coyote was a symbol of the Shaman, a beast that crosses between the physical and spiritual worlds, who has the power to see into the past and the future. A magical and transformative animal. I am looking at Walt’s calls in my hand and know I have to make a coyote film.

But first I need to learn how to call them. Perhaps with a lesson from Walt…

Posted in hunting animals, transformative animals | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

bull riding

I met a cowboy who invited me to watch him bull ride. These men compete not against each other, but against the bulls who are champions in their own right. Angry bulls who sometimes take their revenge. These proud and cumbersome-looking creatures became surprisingly agile and balletic when they had an unwelcome cowboy on their backs. Years of genetic selection have created this elite breed The American Bucking Bull designed for their athletic prowess and desire to buck.

Their names are as familiar to fans as the names of the cowboys who ride them: Chicken on a Chain, Voodoo Child, Unabomber, Far West, Bad Medicine, Braveheart, Perfect Poison, Train Wreck, Bufallo Hump, Tomahawk, Bible Bender, Iron Horse, Pistolero, I’m a Gangster, Bushwacker, Bones, Code Blue, Spit Fire, Black Pearl, Big Iron, Wild and Out, Hot Stuff, Pit Boss, Minor Incident, Big Iron, Ground Zero, Super Duty, Smack Down, Touch of Class, Out of Control….

Posted in breeding animals, competitive animals | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments


Further south, in Utah, the Anasazi people were hunting game as early as 1200 B.C. Over three thousand years later I am standing here looking up at images of their hunters encircling bear, elk, longhorn sheep and deer chipped into the blackened sandstone cliffs.

Today’s hunters adorn their walls with trophies of a different sort and are regulated by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Posted in hunting animals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the deer’s foot

Meanwhile, 500 miles to the north in Hardin, Montana, a severed deer’s foot lies discarded near the junction of Railroad Street and 2nd Street West.

Posted in discarded animals, hunting animals | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

the horse memorial

15 miles down the road from Hardin is the battlefield of The Little Bighorn. A vast and haunting place, now part of the Crow Indian Reservation. Memorials abound. The first for Custer and the 7th Cavalry built in 1881, the second for the horses of the 7th Cavalry, and in 2003, 122 years later, a third memorial is dedicated to the Native Americans who died in battle.

The Indians memorialise the horse, not with stone, but with honor songs. The story has it that the horse of one Arickara scout returned alone to the camp hundreds of miles away with arrows still in his body. And that was the first they knew of this epic battle that would change the lives of Native Americans forever.

The view from the former trenches of the 7th Cavalry, looking south over the memorial stone of Hehaka Wankata Najin (Elk Stands On Top), a Sans Arc Lakota Warrier. Soundtrack: My Enemy I Come After Your Good White Horse (Arikara Tribe) from War Dances and Honor Songs, Everest Records.

Posted in memorialised animals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the deer’s foot II

At the southern end of Paradise Valley, Montana. In a snowstorm, driving along the Yellowstone River, I pull over and there on the tarmac lies another severed deer’s foot. Just there, right in front of me.

Posted in discarded animals | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the standard of perfection

The cowboy called to invite me to the fairground where his sister was competing in the Fur and Feathers Show. Inside the barn an excited crowd had gathered clutching their pet rabbits. The rules of the American Rabbit Breeders Association Standard of Perfection were rigorously followed. The girls lined up at the bench with their rabbits and the judge stopped to inspect them one by one…

“The American Rabbit Breeders Standard of Perfection provides the guide for evaluating rabbits on the judging table, as well as a guide for the breeding of top quality show animals.”

Posted in breeding animals, competitive animals | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the bunny derby

After the serious business of judging was over, the fun began. As light relief from trying to reach perfection, the bunnies raced each other in heats of two, aided by the delicate breath and eager hands of their owners.

And somewhere at the back of my mind I thought of the rabbit fire chief and the dancing chicken in Herzog’s Stroszek. Set in Wisconsin in 1977, I imagine the amusement arcade no longer exists, but who knows. Here anything is possible.

Posted in competitive animals, entertaining animals | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

the wolf

Its late in the day and I am standing on a deserted stretch of Route 89 filming an abandoned house. Wandering away from the camera, I see a grey wolf limping around the side of the building. I hold my breath. These creatures are so shy of humans that I know he can’t have seen me. Later I look at my footage, and there he is, a shadow behind the grass. And in the next clip, a few minutes later, he limps back. I think he must be wounded and living in the empty house. As I’ve been filming abandoned houses all over the state I often see scat inside them. Perfect shelter from the brutal Montanan winter.

Last week the grey wolf was stripped of its endangered species status in the American West. The move is the culmination of a long dispute that has pitted the wolves’ defenders against hunters who say the wolves were devastating wild game they wanted for themselves.

Posted in hunting animals | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dale Evans and the coyote

On a cold day in downtown Billings I am browsing in a thrift store and uncover this book, first published in 1956. A western morality tale where Dale Evans, wife of Roy Rogers and Queen of the West, teaches little Bobby and Kate Starr rule number 7 from Roy Rogers’ Cowboy Code for Children: ‘be kind to animals and care for them’.
But the code doesn’t seem to apply to all animals in this fictional and romaticised view of the west and its interesting to note that:
native coyote = bad
imported calf = good

Posted in entertaining animals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Last night as I was leaving the rodeo, the cowboy raised his hat and called out after me ‘Happy Trails’… the catchphrase of Roy Rogers.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s Roy Rogers presented a highly romanticised ideal of the West for children around the world. Rumour had it that he was more romantically attached to his Palamino horse Trigger than to his wife Dale Evans. Here he is serenading Dale with Trigger hasn’t got a Purty Figure from their 1944 film, Lights of Old Santa Fe.

Trigger was billed as The Smartest Horse in the Movies and worked alongside Rogers in 87 films, knew 60 tricks and could walk 150 steps on his hind legs. There is a touching intimacy between them… man and horse… a romance… and I wonder what leads both contemporary and traditional cultures to anthropomorphise animals so?

Happy Trails…

Posted in entertaining animals | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

bees, bees, a whole truckload of bees…

Driving along I-15 in Utah yesterday I came across a crashed truck and 25 million escaped bees. The bees were being driven from South Dakota to California to pollinate almond trees.

Since 1940 the number of managed bee colonies in the US has halved from 5 million to 2.5 million, a fall that is mainly due to colony collapse disorder disease. This drop in numbers had led to the commercial movement of bees – every year 80 billion bees are trucked across the US from east to west and back again to pollinate fruit trees. Ironically some experts believe that transporting the hives from farm to farm is contributing to the rise in disease… to say nothing of the death toll each time a truck carrying hives crashes…

Recent bee escapes due to auto accidents:
July 2011
: 14 million bees on Highway 20 in Idaho (en route from California to North Dakota)
May 2010
: 17 million bees on I-35 near Lakeville Minnesota (en route to North Dakota after wintering in Mississippi)
March 2010
: 8 million bees on Hwy 99 in Sacramento, California
March 2008: 12 million bees on Hwy 99 near Sacramento (en route to Yakima, Washington)
September 2007: 13 million bees  in Bear Trap Canyon west of Bozeman, Montana (en route from Idaho to North Dakota)

Posted in captive animals, useful animals | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

it’s a goat rope

Its Saturday afternoon and we’re at the women’s rodeo where ladies are competing against passive goats instead of bucking bulls.
We watch them goat tying, and as ever there are a list of exacting rules. It is a test of skill and speed. She may be disqualified for undue roughness, touching the goat after the tie, or if her horse comes in contact with the goat or tether. If the goat becomes untied before six seconds have passed, she receives no score. It’s all about touching and tying.

The term goat-rope or goat rodeo has a secondary colloquial meaning in American English:
n. a messy or disorganized situation.
US military jargon ca. 1970s-1980s, referring to an operation or undertaking involving an unnecessarily large number of people, most of them contributing nothing or actually impeding progress.

Posted in captive animals, competitive animals, entertaining animals | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment