an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
This is a story about Austin’s changing environment and a terrible episode of how a flood displaced an entire urban neighborhood, but it’s also a story about horses, and so I have to tell you first about mine.
I grew up with a horse. Dallas and I came together when he was three and I was fourteen, which is to say we were roughly analogous in whatever “animal” years that I’ve always found kind of forced and unnecessary. The point is, we were both older kids, but still kids, and we wandered too far from home together and got shotguns waved at us when we rudely ran through a neighbor’s crop together and got in trouble with mom together and spent all our spare time together. We made each other mad and made each other laugh — he’s a horse, so he doesn’t laugh, but he has a particular face when he thinks I’ve done something ridiculous, which is often. We also trained hard for fancy horse shows that I wanted to do, and faced many a pre-dawn morning on the road to competitions. He stayed home in Virginia when I went to college in New York and came with me when I moved to Texas. Now I’m nearly thirty-one and he’s twenty and no creature on earth — not kith nor kin — knows me better than he does. It’s not as strange as it sounds.
When I worked as a veterinary technician, part of my job was to prepare people facing the end for their old, injured, or ill horses. Many of them wanted to be present for their deaths, the way they would be for a dog or cat in the veterinary office. I always counseled them against it, unless I knew their constitution or knew that they’d borne witness to it before. I advised them to give their horse some final carrots and go back to their houses, to keep the memory of a simple pleasure as their marker for this awful day. They did not owe their horse their presence at the end. Horses are big and the vast majority of them are not trained to lie down on command. Even if they are sedated before the final injection, unless they’ve already been downed by injury or illness, there’s a fall. Their bodies and brains do not shut down at the same time. The brain goes first, taking consciousness with it, but the body takes longer. Horses crash hard, head first, because it’s heavy. They moan harsh and long as the last breath they took gets forced out of huge lungs from the weight of the impact. Legs buckle awkwardly. It is not the final vision that people want of their friends.
All this is to say, when I learned from my friend Sharon, who rides with me every weekend, that Onion Creek had washed her friends’ horses away, my spine froze. Sharon used to keep her horses down there, and still had friends who owned and boarded horses along Bluff Springs Road in southeast Austin. Just a short drive from the heart of the city, the horse properties there backed up to Onion Creek District Park, which has miles and miles of trails horses share with hikers and bikers. It had beautiful views. It gave easy escape to the Hill Country without the hassle of navigating downtown traffic first. It was one of the last remaining places in Austin proper where people could keep horses as property values rose and development crept ever outward. Property taxes were low and no one was banging down their doors to buy them out. Developers left the horse people alone. No one wanted it, even for condos. And who in Austin, in this day and age, doesn’t want some fresh turf for condos? The reason for its affordability and its continued use as horse property, however, was because the land itself was compromised, unfit for housing.
It was a flood plain.
Sharon left Onion Creek several years ago, for several reasons. Acreage was limited, for one, and too many horses per acre lived down there, and they didn’t have much turnout. It was also pretty muddy. The moisture and the numbers of horses created a serious problem with flies and a lack of fresh air in general. She moved to a place in Bastrop with wide open fields, no mud, and no flies to speak of (coming from Virginia, Land Of The Bloodsucking Horseflies of Death, this was not a minor miracle to me. Texas and I have other issues, but that’s for another story). The tradeoff was the hour-long drive, one way. I’d taken this tradeoff from the outset of my time in Texas, passing on a close-in home for Dallas in favor of more space, and Bastrop is where I met Sharon, who’d moved her horses there from Onion Creek, and who told me then that I’d made the right choice of where to keep my horse. (We eventually moved our horses fifteen minutes closer, to a mutual friend’s barn in Elgin, but the point stands.)
But she also explained to me the appeal, both physical and otherwise, that kept her friends in Onion Creek. The trails! The easy access from town! Neither of those factors was easy to disregard. She missed them terribly. And, while Sharon found that the benefits of moving her horses outweighed its difficulties, home is home, whether for horse or person. When people are settled and it would be far more expensive to relocate, and they love where they live, and can enjoy trails with their friends every day, and no one is asking them to leave, well, why would they?
My initial horror at Sharon’s news of her friends and their horses proved insufficient to the actual horror wrought in Onion Creek by the rains that pounded Austin on October 31, 2013. Having experienced the scorched, it-hurts-to-breathe summers of 2010 and 2012 (but honestly, is there ever any other kind of summer down here?) along with our animals, who endured without the benefit of air conditioning, we embattled horse people are accustomed to being thankful for every drop of rain to hit this drought-weary earth. If it be too much, well, we’ll deal with it. But this rain was different. It was as spiteful as the sun had been. It was not a respite.
The waters rose. By nightfall, the water had risen so quickly that some alarmed horse owners let the horses loose from their flooding barns. Others, trapped in the upper floors of their flooding houses, could not. They listened as their panicked horses, pinned by rushing water, drowned in their stalls. Loose horses were swept down the creek into the park. Some swam safely to higher ground. Others were battered by industrial debris from a manufacturing facility up the creek and died. Still more succumbed to exhaustion trying to stay afloat.
When the rain stopped, the Onion Creek horse community organized citizen efforts to locate survivors and count the dead. “Nine horses were found today,” the group’s ad hoc search and rescue page stated on November 2, “unfortunately none were alive.” Far more were missing. “With the way things seem to be going, not finding any alive today, we will search tomorrow…then focus efforts more towards recovery.” Recovery efforts ended a week later. Nine horses were found alive. Five were still missing. Twenty-one were found, deceased. Their bodies were found as far as forty yards away from the normal bounds of the creek, testifying to how high the waters rose. There were more, hidden under receding waters, tucked, mangled, into brush and debris.
It is hard thinking about when Dallas’s time is up at some future moment, but I take comfort in the notion of having a plan for it. I think most animal owners do. He’s 20 now, after all — we threw him a party at the barn this spring, complete with carrot cake — and while he’s in excellent health and we’re having as much fun and getting into as much trouble as we ever have, we have far fewer years in front of us than we do behind us. He’s gone from being my contemporary to being the horse-age equivalent of Sean Connery, complete with a gray beard intruding on his black coat. I like to think I have the luxury of listening to him, and letting him tell me when it’s time, and then making the necessary arrangements so his imminent death will be as unknowable for him as possible when that time comes. I will not watch. I will give him some final carrots and keep the memory of his simple pleasure as the marker for that awful day. I will keep several long strands of his black tail and send them to a woman who makes lovely bracelets with it for sentimental horsewomen like me, and wear that memory of our long, wonderful relationship the rest of my days. It already makes me a little weepy every time I think about it, because he’ll be gone, but as far as things go, it’s not a bad end.
There is no emotional room in this plan for listening, helpless, as my horse drowns in his stall, or watching, helpless, as his body, alive or dead or somewhere in between, gets swept from his field in a torrent, or knowing, and imagining, trapped in upper floors of my house as the water rises, that this is happening to him. There is no room in anyone’s plan, anyone who has ever enjoyed the friendship of an animal, and who has assumed that they will be able to provide care and safety as well as companionship for an animal, to have to cope with that kind of death.
Nine days later, residents further along Onion Creek, dealing with their own cleanup efforts, reported the stench of death to any city agency they could call — 311, Parks and Rec, Animal Control. In mid-November, cleanup volunteer Lina Meaux told KUT, “Some body should be helping, at least coming and getting these animals out of here. I mean, they’re decaying where people live.” In mid-January, one resident’s dog repeatedly came home covered in the stench of death, and then her yard, which backed up onto the creek, was covered with the stench of death.
Disposing of dead horses, even in the best of circumstances, is hard, for the same reason that their dying, even in the best of circumstances, is hard. They’re big, heavy animals. Many rural counties in many states prohibit burying dead horses on personal property because their decomposition pollutes the groundwater. Leaving dead horses above ground, unless you have vast property, smells for months, as the residents of the Onion Creek area now know too well. Plus, the feed and supplements and pharmaceuticals most horses receive during their lifetimes makes them unsafe for scavengers — from raptors to wandering pet dogs — to consume raw. Horse slaughter was outlawed in the US several years ago, making it nearly impossible to sell an old horse to a renderer, which in our culture has fallen out of favor in recent years anyhow. What happens after a horse is euthanized, as I had to explain to clients, was a costly and complex endeavor. One option is send the carcass up to the State Lab — part of the USDA Extension service — for vet student practice necropsies, and eventual incineration (no, you don’t get an urn). Another is to call a contract carcass remover, who generally arranges for the carcass to be processed at a private intrastate facility.
Another is to call a friend with a backhoe and groundwater be damned.
For the horses swept down Onion Creek, the situation was more complicated. Despite the complex emotional, environmental, financial, and logistical obstacles horse owners face when they put their horses down, there is one simple constant: figuring it out and dealing with it, and paying for it, is their responsibility. But what happens when your horse has been swept away? The majority of the carcasses ended up on public land, but close enough to private land that pets had access to the bodies, and that the stink penetrated private yards and homes. But how does one go about removing a decomposing thousand pound animal from a tree? From a muddy, inaccessible creek bed full of industrial debris? Whose environmental responsibility does it become? Whose financial responsibility? Whose logistical responsibility? This knot was not easily untangled. Horse owners had found and identified and marked the carcasses and started dealing with the emotional fallout of their death, but could do very little in the way of removing them, because it would require such an enormous coordinated effort with resources far beyond their reach. Parks and Rec acted under the assumption that, despite the fact that the horses were on public land, they were privately owned and not the city’s problem. Ultimately, it fell to stench-maddened property owners to call, and call, and call, to call anyone they could. It took three months of calling, and one month of work, to finally get the horses out.
Austin Resource Recovery, the arm of city maintenance that is in charge of removing roadkill, ultimately shouldered the task. In early February, after four months of stench, they finally finished removing the variably decomposed carcasses from the park behind the neighborhood along the creek. Fifteen horse carcasses were found of the twenty-six lost. Finally, the horse dangling from a tree was gone.
This is not the final vision people want of their friends.
These dead horses brought into sharp focus a long-festering, many-tentacled problem in this neighborhood. The neighborhood was built in the 1970s, before flood restrictions were a thing. The horse properties were already there, if in different forms. It was the outskirts of town, already semi-rural then. A major flood inundated the Onion Creek area in 1998, which, one longtime resident said, was the first they had learned that it was a flood plain. Since then, the city has been quietly, slowly — some might say painstakingly — working to buy residents out of the area, hampered by difficulties securing federal funds to do so. Between 1999 and the Halloween floods, only 323 owners had been bought out. Urgency, especially in a long and worsening statewide drought, was lacking. In the weeks after the 2013 flood, the city set aside enough funds to buy out 115 more, which did not come close to nearly 700 severely damaged homes whose owners were living in shelters and, flood insurance or not, faced financial disaster. This neighborhood was not a priority. One woman, who had been living in a tent in her yard since the flood, told reporters that no one from the city had showed up to help until November 9.
“It felt like we’re literally on a desert island,” she said.
It was the stench of dead horses that finally brought people in. It was the horses — their path down the roaring creek, their bodies scattered into places they did not belong — that initiated the cleanup of the creek, the evaluation of the extent of environmental and personal damage, that codified, in carcass form, that it had been wrong to ignore the economic and environmental issues at the heart of this part of the city. The fragmentation of responsibility revealed by their removal was accurate: it was everyone’s responsibility that they chose to live there, that they were not encouraged to leave, and that the growth around them would, despite their desires to keep their homes as they’d always been, affect them in the end. As for the horse people, some do not plan to relocate. Others can’t — Onion Creek was affordable, for the very reasons it was dangerous. Others are facing the reality that to have horses in a city in this day and age is not feasible, and are looking to board farther out. Others don’t have horses anymore.
Eventually, federal money came through. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers secured over $11 million to buy out the neighborhood and turn it into a natural recreation area. While negotiations are ongoing, within the next couple of years, people may cease to live in this pocket of Austin, a city with such a population crisis that it’s official bird, as one wry commentator has quipped, is the crane. The scale of displacement is striking, and it includes not only homes, but businesses, facilities — everything that makes a place to live possible. In the midst of Austin’s most recent boom, this area is disappearing. Horse trails may or may not be part of the plan for the new park, but it’s safe to say that if they are, people will be trailering their horses in from places like Lockhart, Elgin, Manor, and Bastrop.
One thing is clear: as far as Austin is concerned, even its seemingly unlimited potential for growth remains, at some level, at the mercy of drought and flood. Its fate in the next decade may be decided by water, as the Colorado River goes dry. But that’s for another story. As far as the Onion Creek horses and their neighbors, there’s no room in this plan for them anymore.
Jeannette Vaught is an American Studies Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, a former equine veterinary technician, and a lifelong horsewoman. Her research focuses on the intersections of animals, science, and American culture. She is currently finishing her dissertation, “Science, Animals, and Profit-Making in the American Rodeo Arena.” Her latest publication is Materia Medica: Technology, Vaccination, and Antivivisection in Jazz Age Philadelphia,” and can be found in the September 2013 special issue of the American Quarterly. Her horse, Dallas, remains unimpressed, as he is more concerned with securing a steady supply of apples and belly scratches.