Drury Logo

Drury Nav

    Hey Folks. Realize that this Ebola story I wrote back in August isn't precisely a longform piece, but given the ridiculous panic about a disease that has killed exactly one person in the United States, figured it was worth a re-post here. As a bonus, I'm also posting a true longform piece from a last year that is dear to my heart but for reasons we won't get into here, just never made it into print. Enjoy ...



Can You Get Ebola?

Spooked by the recent outbreak in West Africa, and the potential spread to America? Let these doctors calm you down

I forget which killer-Ebola-Virus movie it was. I do remember Rene Russo was in it. You don't forget Rene Russo. I can recall a few hazy plot details: A monkey escaped, someone coughed in a crowded movie theater, and then the whole town's organs were melting out of their every orifice. Yep, that orifice, too.

Fortunately, "that's exaggerated for Hollywood," says Dr. Chris Basler, a researcher specializing in Ebola at New York City's Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine. "There's no evidence that the virus, unlike, say, influenza, can be transmitted by breathing or coughing or sneezing. It's transmitted strictly via close contact with infectious bodily fluids-blood, urine, semen-similar to the HIV virus.

"And though yes, a significant percentage of people who contract Ebola do have signs of hemorrhage-one thing that happens is that your blood vessels begin to leak fluid from your circulatory system into your tissue, and that's bad-the phenomenon of bleeding is really a secondary effect. Not everyone who gets the disease has significant bleeding symptoms. So it's not the overwhelming bleeding that really kills you."

Dr. Basler has been studying Ebola for 15 years, and he does not downplay the disease's staggering lethality, evidenced by the 660 Africans already killed since the outbreak was discovered last February.

"It's fair to say that it is one of the most deadly pathogens that we know of," he says. "It's a horrible disease."

But, he adds, that the "we're-all-doomed!" scenario that scares the bejesus out of clowns like Donald Trump is, in fact, just that: a fictional scenario. "Ebola isn't so easily transmitted from person to person," he says. "And to have something similar happen in the United States to what is happening in West Africa is extremely unlikely."

I felt it prudent to ring up Dr. Basler given the unprecedented spread of the viral disease throughout West Africa and the heightened news coverage of the American doctor and nurse who contacted Ebola in Liberia and have been flown back to the States for treatment. I have been tracking the spread of Ebola from Central Africa to West Africa for some time, not least because earlier this spring, my 17-year-old son asked me if he could spend part of his summer working for a charity that digs wells in remote Ghanian villages.

His mother and I have allowed him to roam pretty far afield by himself in his young life. But this time, aware that Ebola had broken from remote villages in the interior to coastal population centers from Guinea to Sierra Leone to Liberia-too close to Ghana for my taste-we had to decline his request.

And again in contrast to my Hollywood recollections, Dr. Basler says that while scientists are still not 100 percent certain, it looks as though the Ebola virus jumped from the animal kingdom into the human population via certain species of bats, and not simians. (Although it's possible that Ebola has also jumped from bats to monkeys.)

Two of the first cases ever recorded involved a Dutch tourist and an American tourist who some 30 years ago explored a Ugandan cave carpeted with bat urine and guano. The Dutchwoman died; the American, after returning to the States for treatment, survived.

The irrepressible comic stylings of people like Trump notwithstanding, "an Ebola patient in the United States is much less likely to transmit the disease," Dr. Basler says. "They'll become sick, go to a hospital, and because of the severe infection the hospital will take the standard precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from one individual to another. It'll be similar to the precautions one takes to prevent the transmission of HIV."

Dr. Basler's colleague Dr. Kevin Chason, who is responsible for Mount Sinai Hospital's EMS program and is co-director of its disaster response program, agrees. He says that along with Mount Sinai, hospitals and health centers across the country have long been briefed by the Center for Disease Controls and the State Department about the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We are, Dr. Chason adds, more than prepared in the unlikely event the disease jumps the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's important to understand that this disease in endemic to certain areas of the world and that people who travel here from those areas will be recognized, evaluated, and in some cases isolated if they do arrive here," he says. "The United States has infection-control measures in place that are not routinely available in, say, West Africa, that would easily contain any spread of this virus."

Some of the measures he mentions include routine hand hygiene, protective gloves, gowns, masks, eye protection, single rooms for isolation, and special ventilation systems, all more readily available in modern American hospitals.

"As an emergency physician, we like to think that we can handle whatever comes through that door," Dr. Chason says. "But in the main, let's hope it doesn't."

My career has taken me to plenty of shitholes around the world, including the worst quarters of N'Djamena and Newark. But I've always thought of Liberia's Monrovia and Haiti's Port au Prince-particularly the Cite Soleil section, where the only stream serves as both drinking water and toilet-as tied for the most desperately unlucky. Until now. For I suppose given its current Ebola outbreak, Monrovia takes that title.

Alas, I have to hope it retains it.


The Last Cowboy


It was late afternoon, sun low in west, casting jagged shadows on the snowcapped Goshutes framing the yawning valley. The cowboy Clay Naninni swept his arm, left to right, like a maestro on his concert stand.

"Could watch your dog run away for three days across there," Naninni said. Basso drawl, hoarse and scratchy, more Eastwood than Wayne.

Then he doffed his white Stetson, used his shirtsleeve to wipe a ridge of sweat-caked dust from his forehead, and swiveled. Nudged my shoulder. I turned from a murder of crows strafing a prairie dog village and followed his pointing index finger, gnarled and scarred from lariat burns. "Headin' our way," he said.

I spotted the cloud of dust beyond the flats, maybe a mile off. It was a small herd, running single file, 24 by our count. Wild mustangs. Sleek bays and roans, a piebald, black mare in the lead. Long manes flowing; bobbing tails keeping time to thundering footfalls.

Naninni gave a low whistle. "Neat experience, isn't it?" he said. "They never walk anywhere. Like kids. Full-out gallop all the time."

The horses swerved north through the sage and rabbit brush, their noses leading them to a solar-powered well Naninni and his wranglers had recently dug. We were on private land, Nevada's Spruce Ranch, hard by the Utah border, one of two contiguous properties purchased a few years back by the philanthropist Madeleine Pickens, ex-wife of the Texas takeover operator T. Boone. Her goal, Clay Naninni's goal - to save these wild horses from the slaughterhouse. Maybe from extinction.


All told, including grazing-rights permits to public lands, Madeleine Pickens' holdings across northeast Nevada encompass about 900 square miles, spanning two mountain ranges and three rolling valleys. She may not be finished. If she could, Pickens told me, she'd stockpile enough acreage to rescue all 80,000-plus wild mustangs in the west from the government holding pens, from the Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses. She can't, of course. Nonetheless, westerners like the Nye County Commisioners despise her small effort.

Odd thing about it, these are the kind of westerners, cattlemen and cowboys, with whom Clay Naninni grew up. The kind he counts as family and friends. Some of them now despise him, too, consider his work with Pickens a treachery. He's had the fistfights to prove it.

Still. He can relate.

"Imagine the view from the cattleman's side, you can kind of understand it," he told me that day. "Their whole deal is to put weight on cows. If you owned a factory that made yo-yos, your goal is to make as many yo-yos for as little as you can. The cow man's the same way. He wants to put as many pounds on the cow for as little cost as he can.

 "So the way he sees it, these horses are no more'n nuisances, pests, eating his cow food. Every blade of grass a wild mustang eats is one less blade of grass a cow can't eat."

 That said, Naninni admitted to a soft spot. Not particularly for the romance of horses - "When I want a rodeo mount, it's because it works good, not because it nickers at me when I come to feed him" - but for the cowboy concept of live and let live. Sure, it'd be nice if circumstances were different. If his favorite uncle would talk to him again. If old friends didn't shun him in saloons. But in life sometimes a man has to make hard choices.

"My dad brought me up to know what I believe, to know right from wrong," he said. "And I want my sons to be able to always keep their minds open, process all points of view to know that they did the right thing."

He kicked at a clump of white sage, squatted, snapped off a coarse blade, and raised it to his mouth like a toothpick. "I didn't do anything to anybody I didn't feel was just as right as the rain. And if anybody ever says anything to my boys about their Dad, they can just whack em right in the mouth and know that it's okay because it's not true."

 As you may have gathered, I am a sucker for stories of passionate men embarking on what may be fool's errands; for stories about men standing alone in the face of popular opinion; for stories about men building a legacy to leave for their children. I suspected at the time that this was Clay Naninni's story. Although I am certain he did not see it that way.

Now the mustangs were closing in on us, kicking up dust devils as they raced across a rutted dirt road not 30 yards away. Naninni wiped his forehead again.  "People always think the stallions take the lead," he said. "It's the mares. Stallions hang back of the pack. Interesting, isn't it?"

Yes, it was. They were in fact beautiful, and iconic. Perhaps enough to make me re-think my stance about eating them.


            If you live east of the Mississippi or west of the Sierras you probably have no idea about the bitter clash raging over wild mustangs in the Mountain West. Nutshell: cattlemen from Oregon to New Mexico (and to some extent sheep herders and farmers) see them as varmints defacing public ranges. Would prefer to shoot them like wolves or coyotes. But will settle for a foreign slaughterhouse or the Bureau of Land Management's holding pens, currently stabling around 50,000 at taxpayer expense.

Pitted against the cattle interests are animal advocates who view the horses as majestic symbols, sacred as the bald eagle, a tangible link to America's pioneer heritage. "All we're asking is to give the wild horses their fair share of resources," says Suzanne Roy, director of the non-profit American Wild Horse Preservation campaign. "Poll after poll has shown that Americans overwhelmingly oppose the slaughter and eating of our wild horses. It's like eating the family dog."

Attempting to referee this bout is the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, a subsection of the Department of Interior that both sides of the conflict - and not a few neutral observers - claim has screwed the pooch in the management of the dwindling wild herds, which near the turn of the 19th century numbered in the millions.

Taking a lonely stand in the middle of this war is the cowboy Clay Naninni. He and I had spent most of that day traversing a great swath of public land hard by the Pickens ranches where, in a January 2011 census, the BLM counted 1,000 wild horses. We did not see one. Once, as we paused at the top of a mountain pass, looking back on the valley we just crossed, Naninni stated the obvious. "You don't misplace 1,000 horses, even on 600,000 acres.

"The BLM has screwed things with these horses six ways from Sunday," he added. "Pretty much everyone accuses them of being either venal or just stupid. Though all told, the cattlemen still get the much better deal from the Feds. This wild horse controversy, I don't think the BLM knew what it was getting' into. And now they're in over their heads."

Which you cannot say about the 39-year-old Naninni. He and his four older sisters were raised 25 miles from the Pickens ranches, in the once-booming town of Wells, Nevada, a water-rich layover along the old California Trail. Wells has since withered to less than 1400 souls. It was in Wells that Naninni's Italian immigrant grandfather, the former railroad worker Charlie Naninni, opened a casino and saloon early in the last century. By the time the casino business passed to Clay's father Mike, ranching and horsemanship had bled into the boy's childhood.

His grandfather and father, he said, "had a passion for horses," housing a remuda of quarterhorses on their 1500-acre spread as well as "a handful of cows."

"I think I started riding when I was three or four years old. For some reason I just absolutely took to it. So my Grandpa saw to it that I always had more than enough opportunity to ride and rope and that kind of thing."

Naninni competed in rodeo from the age of six or seven, kept at it through high school, and earned a rodeo scholarship to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His specialty was steer wrestling. He also boxed in privately-run smokers. Afterward he tried his hand on the pro rodeo circuit, where pickings were slim.

"All I ever wanted to really be was a cowboy," he said. "But in that line of work a guy's gotta figure out how to survive on about $1500 a month. I'm not immune to the nicer things in life. You know? And I was starting a family. Being a cowboy's a single man's game. Gypsies, moving from place to place to place."

And here Naninni pulled a snapshot from his satchel; 11-year-old Michael, 9-year-old Will, and little Ruby, all of four, crowding him and his pretty wife Jolene. He ran a finger along the edge of the photograph. "But I couldn't see myself sittin' in a casino for the rest of my life, either."

Instead he drifted into the real estate business. Earned his license and opened an office 100 miles north of Wells, across the state line in Twin Falls, Idaho. Began brokering ranch sales. One in particular to Madeleine Pickens.


It was not far from that office where on a hot afternoon a few days later Naninni and I leaned into a metal rail guarding the gaping chasm of the Snake River Canyon - just downstream from where Evel Knievel attempted  his ill-fated "Sky Cycle" jump. Our conversation ran from wild horses to the meaning of living a righteous life. He also joked that his old friends and family have reasons other than his relationship with Pickens to resent him.

"I've fucked up on two fronts," he said with a laugh. "Not only in my involvement with Madeleine, but I didn't choose the most noble profession in the world being a scumbag real estate man, right?"

In fact, when Pickens approached him in 2010 about purchasing the co-joining Warm Springs and Spruce ranches, Naninni was leery. Pickens, like most wealthy people, is outspoken in her causes, particularly about cattlemen and their hatred of wild horses. More than once, citing dirt-cheap BLM fees to graze their private herds on public lands - Cliven Bundy was being charged $1.35 per month per animal by the BLM this year - she has referred to them as "welfare ranchers." She also accused them of bamboozling the BLM with "two sets of books."

When I bring this up Naninni laughed again. Sardonic. He is, I found, prone to it. "These are my friends she's talking about. Good men, mostly. You can imagine that didn't sit well coming from what these boys saw as a spoiled, effete Easterner who won't eat a steak and puts a sweater on her dog." Pause. "Though it is a nice sweater."

Before agreeing to work with Pickens, Naninni consulted his father, the man he says he respects most in the world. "He says, 'Listen, boy, before you get too involved, you better know what you're getting into.' Told me it wasn't gonna help my real estate business. Warned me that it was not gonna make me a lot of fans around the dinner table at family gatherings.

"I said I understood. And then he said, 'Is it the right thing?' I thought it was. And he said, "Always be true to the right thing. I tried to teach you that. You teach your sons that.' And I think it is the right thing. I've told my boys that. The right thing for the horses. For the west. For the country."

And for the cattlemen? He took a moment before answering. "The majority of my friends are people from that walk of life, and I respect that more than anything. But I also … well, some of those guys are just as bad as the advocates. They think the only good wild horse is a dead wild horse. While the advocates think there shouldn't be a cow on the open range."

When Pickens reached out to Naninni she made clear that her property - the two ranches she intended to purchase and the government grazing-rights permits she leased on adjacent public land - would be set aside for the 600-odd wild mustangs she'd purchased, rescued really, from a Paiute Indian reservation. Unlike the protected herds that roam U.S. federal acreage, Indians can do anything they want with wild horses rounded up on their sovereign land. These were destined for a Mexican slaughterhouse.

The ranchers shopping the properties were not keen to deal with Pickens, then still married to T. Boone. "With all due respect, those poor bastards," Naninni remembeeds, "they did everything they could to not sell to her."

But Pickens made the best offer, Naninni brokered the deal, and then she turned to him for more help. She needed a foreman to oversee the digging of wells, the fixing of range fence; de-worming her mustangs, trimming their hooves.

"People thought I worked for her," he said as we gazed down at the Snake. "Never did. Worked with her. Was good. Not everybody gets an opportunity to work with 400, 500, 600 horses in this day and age. It's something I got to show my kids that they'll never get to see again."

And then, he added, he gelded them. "Scalpel, emasculators, and anesthetic. All the stallions and colts. Growing up, I've done it a lot. Probably more than most veterinarians."

I wondered aloud if he's ever put a horse down.

"Yeah, don't like it, but I guess a lot of them. They get old, break legs. Don't need a vet. Shoot 'em here." He signs an imaginary "X" near his left ear "They're just as dead with a bullet as with a needle. If you do it right, just as fast and just as painless. Compared to watching one suffer, I'm not bothered by that at all."

The gelding of Pickens herd was not popular with the wild horse advocates, who claim that the procedure destroys a stallion's natural family structure. Naninni shrugged.

"I understand the complexity. Every time you geld one you're wiping out a strain. But realistically, if you don't do that there will never be any checks and balances. There's no real predators for wild horses. Bears and wolves are gone. Few mountain lions around, but not enough. Cattle, you harvest the calves. Sheep, you harvest the lambs. Deer and elk, hunting licenses. Other than humans, horses are the only other animals out here that … ,"

Naninni stopped; a sudden thought. "You know, there probably ought to be the same checks and balances for some humans, too."

This in turn sparked a sly smile. "By the way," he said, "you tell Madeleine you ate horse and dog?"


I have indeed eaten boiled dog in Afghanistan, and horse tartar in France. I preferred, by far, the latter. When I mentioned this to the cattle rancher on the bars toll next to me in Elko, Nevada, he sat up a tad straighter.

"So then you see my point," he said. "In essence, the horses, they're barnyard animals. No different than cattle or sheep or pigs. Don't see people getting all upset about a little bacon on their plate.

I met the cow man in Elko, some 50 miles west of the Pickens ranches.  and a city block from the headquarters of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association. He is a member Nevada Cattlemen's Association, whose headquarters are a block away, and he runs a small herd north of town. He asked that I not use his name, saying any "official comment" should rightly come from the association's president, J. J. Goicoechea. (For whom I left seven unreturned phone messages.) But for the half-hour or so that the cow man and I talked he made the case for clearing the mustangs from the range, mostly by complaining about the BLM.  

As I paid my tab and stood he nodded, lifted his glass of bourbon, but paused before it reached his lips. "So what is it with these people and the horses, anyway? I don't get it. What do people like your Mrs. Pickens see in them?"

The next morning, Madeleine Pickens' answer is swift. "Because I realized America has a sexy heritage. You don't have Henry VIII chopping off his wives' heads, Joan of Arc burning at the stake. People from Germany to Japan love the idea of America's wild horses. They don't understand why we don't respect and cherish this heritage. There's something wrong when you can't do that here. But we're driven by greed and money in this country."

Said the ex-wife of T. Boone Pickens.

At any rate, we were seated in comfy armchairs inside one of the louche canvas teepees - king-size bed, throw rugs, handcrafted wood night tables, his-and-hers white terrycloth robes hanging from a mahogany coat stand - that serve as guest rooms on Pickens's Warm Springs ranch, which she hoped would soon become an eco-tourist destination. When I relayed to her my conversation with the cattleman - particularly the snippet regarding my canine eating habits - I feared her head would spin off like a top and burst through the roof.

But when her mind was not exploding at my epicurean delights, I found Pickens quite piquant. A lithe, graceful woman of a certain age clad in buckskin and boots, she spoke with a slight lilt, a leftover accent from her Mideastern heritage - she is the daughter of an American GI and his Egyptian wife - and her European schooling.

She can be tart, and I could see how she would piss people off. Even among wild horse advocates she is far from a beloved figure. The castrations of her herd left a sour taste among many, and she has made enemies on both sides.

"They love me when I give them money," she said with a wave of a long, slender hand. "They hate me when they ask for money and I can't give."

Finally, perhaps most important, her argument in favor of the wild horse makes sense. After all, it does seem odd that more than 270,000 wild horses have been removed from public lands via BLM round-ups and stockpiling since the 1971 congressional passage of the Owellian-named Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act. Many of these horses nonetheless ended up in foreign slaughterhouses, though the practice is illegal. Further, she asked me, why should cattle and sheep ranchers be granted 82 percent of grazing rights to public lands, as opposed to 17 percent for wild horses? For that matter, she added, why should U.S. taxpayers be footing the annual bill for the 50,000 or so wild horses currently held in BLM-run pens?

"There are more wild horses in holding pens than there are on the range," she said. "They cost American taxpayers $70 to $80 million annually, a number that will rise exponentially. In twenty years it will be a billion and a half dollars."

 The perceived inhumanity toward these horses, as well as those numbers, seem to be getting people's attention. Last year, for instance, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill that prevents wild horses from a particular herd near Reno from being sent to slaughter auction. A few days later the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign delivered a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell demanding a reform of the BLM's wild horse program. The letter was signed by over 30,000 Americans, including 30 members of congress and celebrities like Robert Redford and Carole King.

After a few hours with Pickens, I was beginning to understand Clay Naninni's attraction. As he put it, "You may not agree with everything she says, but you can't doubt her passion. I respect and admire that."


The sun had long set over the Snake River Canyon as Clay Naninni and I walked the back forty of his small ranch outside of Twin Falls. (On our way we stopped for a beer at his local "bucket of blood" where, he says, on any given Saturday night you are as likely to get a pool cue broken over your head as served a cold one. "It's not hard to win a bar fight," he says. "In my experience they don't as long as they do in the movies.")

He showed me the mechanical bull his boys practice on, and the ring where he and his friends stage informal rodeos much as you and I play pick-up hoop. "Michael's starting to rope real good. Willy needs a little more time."

 When we meandered into the house his beautiful Jolene pointed me to Michael's and Will's extensive collection of wrestling medals while Naninni poured us four fingers of Pendleton Whiskey - The Cowboy Whiskey. Spread about the kitchen table were glossy coffee table books -Gathering Remnants: A Tribute to the Working Cowboy; Tales of the Tract; Legacy of Silver and Saddle - and soon enough talk turned to his waning relationship with Pickens now that her horse herd has settled onto the land.

"My position with Madeleine is forever evolving; lately I've withdrawn a lot," he said with that same hoarse laugh. "In the beginning she was looking to me to provide some range experience. Could describe my work with her horses as kind of a calling. But where she's at now is more focused on the eco-resort. It's a drift from the original project, and I just said, 'I'm not your guy." Not that it's bad, I'm just not passionate about it."

The same passion that brings him such grief from family and friends? His first frown.

"It was bothersome sometimes, at first especially. But my dad brought me up to know what I believe, to know right from wrong. I would like to think that not many people could have pulled this off like I did. I just have the ability to, well, laugh at myself while also respecting others' points of view. Even if they're stupid. I look at this horse issue from both sides, and there's no simple, right answer.

"The horse advocates' want to see them just be left alone, never touched again. That all sounds great until you realize that if there's no way to thin the herd, pretty soon no matter how vast the land there's gonna be too many of them. On the other hand, I respect that the American rancher has been working this land for 100-plus years, that it's been their bread and butter. I told the cattlemen around here, 'If you guys were smart, you would do whatever you had to do to make friends with people like Madeleine.' Sure, she won't eat meat. Sure, she dresses her dog. Sure, she says mean things about 'em. But even though they're not gonna talk her into eating a big, greasy hamburger, she and they essentially share the same problems. How is the BLM gonna fix the cattle-horse equation on the open range?"

Then the last cowboy walked me to his front door, stopped, and delivered a final thought. "I'm proud of everything I've done for Madeleine," he said. "And, yes, sir, I would do it again.

"Because if there's one thing I've learned from this experience - there's a lot of damn people who are pretty fond of these wild horses."


2019. All Rights Reserved.