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Wild Horses & Wooden Ships

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Packaging Paradise

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Wild Horses & Wooden Ships

February 9, 2006

The Abaco Spanish Barbs (photo by Mimi Rehor)

In 1992, Milanne (Mimi) Rehor was reading a cruising guide to the Bahamas in preparation of a sailing trip to the islands. Two sentences in the guide changed the course of her life. Those sentences casually mentioned a herd of wild horses in an uninhabited part of Great Abaco Island. Mimi later recalled, "As a horse crazy child I read every romantic horse novel ever printed and most of them contained that mystical, irresistible combination of plucky youngsters, mysterious islands, and horses in need of rescue. When I later transferred that equine passion into one for old wooden sailboats, I still had horses galloping around in my heart. And my heart nearly stopped when I read those two short sentences."

Thus began Mimi's mission, first to find the fabled Abaco horses, then to save them from extinction -- a mission that's become her full time vocation. The horses in question number nine and live on crown forest and pasture land northwest of the Treasure Cay resort development. DNA analysis has confirmed them to be a sub-breed of the critically endangered Spanish Barbary horse, introduced to the New World at the time of Columbus. How they ended up in the Abacos is unclear, whether their descendants had been shipwrecked or had been purposefully brought there -- perhaps from Cuba to work in early logging operations in the area -- and later abandoned. Whatever the details of their history, the horses had thrived in a feral state until forty-odd years ago, at which time the herd was estimated at 200 strong.

But when Mimi arrived on her quest aboard Alnilam -- the wooden Magellan 35' sloop that's been her home since 1974 -- she discovered that their very existence was in doubt. In the 1960's a new logging road had been constructed through the horses' refuge, bringing an end to their decades of isolation and leading to their wanton destruction by cruel or misdirected humans. Several residents told Mimi the horses had been wiped out entirely. The truth turned out to be nearly as bad: only one stallion and two mares had survived the slaughter. A few concerned locals had rescued the survivors and let them roam mostly unattended on a large plantation farm. When Mimi finally tracked them down in 1992, their numbers had recovered to somewhere between 30 and 35. At that point Mimi resolved, in her words, "to keep those horses on the planet."

We first heard about Mimi and the Abaco horses while listening one morning to the cruisers' VHF radio net in Marsh Harbour. Under community events, she announced the hours of a used book and video exchange called "A Buck A Book", the proceeds of which go towards saving the wild horses. Always on the hunt for new reading material, we packed up a bunch of dog-eared paperbacks and wandered over to the described location: a converted shipping container on a back lot a short distance from Marsh Harbour's main waterfront road.

Mimi and Bianca at A Buck A Book

Mimi is a slight, intense woman. We found her working at a cramped computer station at the back of the container, surrounded by shelves crammed with books, a cream coloured dog curled up at her feet. "That's Bianca," Mimi explained, nodding at the dozing dog. "She's recovering from a hip infection. I'm up to ten dogs now that I'm caring for, but that's my limit; I can't afford to feed any more than that." A big sack of dry pet food was propped against the door. Three other cruisers were browsing through the shelves. Any movements had to be carefully choreographed to avoid knocking over a pile of books or stepping on Bianca. Between book transactions (incoming donated, outgoing a buck each), Mimi described her history with the horses and the challenges they currently face.

Throughout her life, Mimi has refused to be confined to a particular place or profession. Moving up and down the eastern seaboard on her beloved wooden sailboat, she's worked as a journalist, media consultant, editor, museum researcher, and web designer -- she's even varnished boats and made designer resort wear from time to time to earn a living. It's not surprising, then, that she would identify with the free spirited horses of Abaco, horses that need her help and the contributions of others to survive.

Despite their initial rebound, the horses have gradually declined in number over the past dozen years. Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 had a devastating effect on the herd, largely destroying its forest habitat and forcing the horses to graze on the more confined pastured portions of the plantation. They grew obese from the comparatively rich feed and developed hoof problems from the soft farm soil. For reasons not entirely clear, their fertility plummeted; there have been no live births since 1998. The Bahamian government has set aside a large tract of public land surrounding the farm for the horses, and four mares and one stallion have recently been moved out of the farm and into an adjacent fenced forest preserve. The remaining four stallions are waiting for the next expansion of the protected area. The horses' most immediate need is medical care to improve their health and to address their breeding problem. Humans continue to be a big threat; an expanding squatter settlement near the preserve has been the source of fires and unsightly refuse. Roving dog packs have preyed upon foals.

Mimi established a not for profit US corporation called Arkwild to solicit donations and grants. With the assistance of other cruiser volunteers, she operates A Buck A Book. She organizes tours of the horse refuge. She told us, "I ask for a minimum of four paying visitors at a time to make it worth it to rent a car to take them up to the preserve." In her monthly newsletter, Hoofbeats, she suggests other fund raising projects, appealing to children and youth groups as well as adults.

Photo by Mimi Rehor

A lot of the support she receives in terms of donations and volunteer help is from other cruisers. Although she hasn't received much material assistance from the Bahamian government, Mimi is quick to point out that the current administration has been very supportive in other ways, such as designating public land for the horse preserve. But it's an uphill struggle. There's the horses' health to attend to, fences to be built and maintained, an on-site clinic to be constructed to accommodate maintenance personnel and visitors, and wages to be paid to the two security workers ("I could use six"). And then, in her spare time, there's the care and maintenance demanded by her aging wooden boat, moored in Marsh Harbour. "The last cold front blew my big hatch cover overboard," she said ruefully. "I'm not looking forward to diving in the cold water to retrieve it."

Given the horses' many needs, Mimi's wish list is long. Paring it down to the bare essentials, she said, "What I'd like most is a pickup truck, one that I could take visitors for tours in, transport supplies and building materials, patrol the fence, and use for fire-fighting." There was a wistful tone to her voice. At the moment, she gets around on a small motorcycle, itself an improvement over the mountain bike that was her previous means of transportation.

We can't help but notice a glaring contrast. Literally a stone's throw from Mimi's A Buck A Book converted shipping container is the plush sales office of the Discovery Land Company, proponents of a half billion dollar, 585 acre luxury development at Baker's Bay on nearby Great Guana Cay (see our last entry, "Packaging Paradise"). There's a fleet of gleaming new pickup trucks and SUVs bearing the Baker's Bay logo bustling about Marsh Harbour. The developers are facing stiff opposition from local residents who fear the project will degrade the immediate environment. And then there's Mimi, selling recycled books for a dollar apiece, dreaming of a used pickup truck to help her keep the last of the Abaco horses on the planet. Go to http://arkwild.org/blog/ to find out how you can assist her.

David & Eileen