When it comes to national symbols we think, naturally, of the bald eagle, the national bird emblazoned on everything from pre-21st-century quarters to the official presidential seal. But there are other, equally magnificent icons of our heritage — animals whose stories are even more reflective of America’s conflicted history and character. For instance, it is impossible to comprehend the richness and tragedy of Native American culture, or the malignant consequences of Manifest Destiny, without giving full consideration to the American bison, or buffalo, and the wolf.

Or the wild horse — an animal that evolved on this continent and has literally borne our history on its back: Native Americans, European explorers, early settlers, vaqueros, countless cavalry soldiers. As the 19th century drew to a close an estimated two million wild horses ranged across America, from Missouri to Montana; many settled in and around the missions bordering Los Angeles. In 1840 a Ute named Wakara made history when he raided the San Gabriel Mission and stole close to 2,600 horses, driving them away through the Cajon Pass.

“It was said that you could see clouds of dust from downtown LA, caused by all the horses,” says author Deanne Stillman, who recounts that and many other illuminating events in her book, “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.” It’s an exhaustively researched, eloquently written wake-up call.

Stillman spent 10 years working on the book, a labor of love peopled with memorable characters like Aztec ruler Montezuma, mountain man Pegleg Smith, Buffalo Bill, hard-bitten mustanger Dave Cattoor and early wild horse advocate Wild Horse Annie. Stillman studied cavalry training manuals and soldiers’ diaries at the Huntington Library’s frontier archives in San Marino and LA’s Autry National Center, conducted field trips, combed through muster rolls and uncovered stories of individual horses such as Comanche, a horse that survived Custer’s infamous Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Many of the horses that fell beside Comanche, Stillman says, “were wild horses pressed into service from what was once called the Great Horse Desert of Texas.”

Remarkable stories of individual horses like Comanche, Hollywood horse Fritz and Bugz, a survivor of a gruesome 1998 massacre of 34 mustangs outside Reno, give the book emotional hooks. More importantly, their factual presentation gives heft to Stillman’s argument that we allow wild horses and burros to perish to our national detriment. Reading “Mustang” is heartbreaking and enraging, particularly during sections detailing the Christmas 1998 massacre and other underreported killings and mutilations that still occur. Equally chilling are politicians’ and lobbyists’ efforts to depict the animals as nothing more than turf-chewing parasites whose worth’s best measured in pounds of dog food — “horses as a cash crop,” as Stillman succinctly puts it.

“Mustang” arrives at a crucial juncture. Stillman says 23,000 wild horses, at most, remain on open range. The powerful corporate livestock lobby claims the horses are stealing food from four million cows also on public lands — which provide only about three percent of the nation’s beef supply, yet are heavily subsidized. “Just look at the numbers,” Stillman suggests.

The Bureau of Land Management, charged with managing wild horses, complains of the expense of doing so. It rounds them up into the equine equivalent of concentration camps, sometimes claiming drought as justification — yet other wild animals are not rounded up. Stillman’s book documents mustangs dying of thirst in government corrals because BLM employees neglected to turn on water spigots. More horses are currently penned up than are living on open range. At a wild horse summit held earlier this month in Las Vegas,  range scientists and mustang advocates agreed that if present conditions continue, those herds could vanish in as little as five years. Their genetic viability is already threatened. It is, Stillman insists, “one of our suppressed national stories.”

Given some of our president’s pseudo-cowboy way of talking, one might assume wild horses have a friend in the White House. One would be dead wrong. It was the secretive president to whom Bush is often compared who unexpectedly championed wild horses. In 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act — a pivotal point in Stillman’s book. Exalting the horses as a “living link” to our past, Nixon asserted their “ecological right” to protection.
Yet now, thanks partly to the Bush administration’s efforts to gut Nixon’s work, they can be trucked to the slaughterhouse. Things might change if Barack Obama is elected president — the Illinois senator supported anti-slaughter legislation that shut down the country’s three foreign-owned slaughter plants — but no one really knows. Meanwhile, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (yes, the bathroom guy) has placed a hold on a popular bill that would prevent wild horses from being transported out of the country for slaughter. And we, as a country, feel adrift, the national heritage and identity embodied by the mustang assaulted on every front.

Socialite/philanthropist Madeline Pickens, wife of T. Boone Pickens, recently proposed a massive sanctuary in northern Nevada where wild horses could be safe. It’s a laudable idea — “a Hail Mary pass,” Stillman says — but the question remains: Why can’t existing law that provides exactly such sanctuary in Nevada and 10 other Western states be enforced?
“This really has to do with a schizophrenia in this country,” Stillman says. “What is our relationship to what is wild? We’re jacked on freedom. Our greatest road trip car is the Mustang. Yet here we are trying to kill it. Why? …

“The horse is our great silent witness. The horse is us, really. And we cannot take his gaze. He knows all of our secrets. It’s just too much to bear for some people. … There’s something very evil going on, and I think we as Americans have to come to terms with it.”

Deanne Stillman discusses and signs “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West” at 7 p.m. Monday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 for details. www.deannestillman.com.