How One Unexpected Phone Call Led to the Rescue of the Last Diving Horse in America
Cynthia A. Branigan Remembers Her Time Working for Author and Activist Cleveland Amory
The Fund for Animals was founded in 1967 by author and activist Cleveland Amory after he became disenchanted with the staid, old line humane societies. He took on big projects such as air-lifting burros from the Grand Canyon. He criticized the fur industry and its ancillary interests, trapping and hunting; and he questioned the value of laboratory animal experiments. His bold personality, coupled with the backing of many Hollywood stars, helped the general public take the issue of animal welfare seriously.
I had similar interests but, as a young adult, had no idea where, or how, to begin. Mr. Amory took me on first as a volunteer for the Fund, where I learned about the many problems facing animals, and three years later, as a staff member.
In 1980, I became aware of the danger facing the last Atlantic City Steel Pier diving horse, Gamal. With the Fund’s support, I bought him at auction and averted his sale for slaughter. I was also able to keep him for the rest of his life—something that, in the process, changed my life, too.
A few years later, I was in charge, albeit temporarily, of The Fund for Animals. That may be a bit of an overstatement: I wasn’t making policy, issuing directives, or mapping out the organization’s future; but I would certainly be the one taken to task if everything fell apart in Cleveland’s absence.
Cleveland was not the kind to go on vacation, ever. Along with watching every penny, another part of his DNA code compelled him to work almost nonstop, at least 15 hours a day Monday through Friday and several hours a day on weekends. He had, after all, two full-time jobs: his writing career (for which he was paid) and his animal protection career (for which he was not).
But just because Cleveland did not take vacations did not mean he never left the city, or that he was a slave to the office. One choice opportunity required him to be away for a month: the Cunard Line hired him to give talks and otherwise entertain the passengers aboard the QE2. Two weeks would be spent at sea, one week going to England, and one week returning. Once abroad, he always managed to dig up some additional work. In style and interests, Cleveland harkened to an earlier, and some might say more civilized, era. So, too, did the Cunard Line and its passengers. Their clientele tended toward the older, more affluent segment of society, the sort Cleveland would persuade to contribute to the Fund’s coffers.
The only downside to this busman’s holiday was that such a long absence required, and was enhanced by, the company of his longtime assistant Marian. Since it would have been impossible for both of them to leave if the Fund were left unattended, I was asked to fill in. I don’t pretend to know why Cleveland chose me. Maybe I was the only one available. Maybe it was just part of my amorphous job. Or maybe I was the only one he could trust to take proper care of his beloved cat Polar Bear, the feline who was about to become famous in Cleveland’s best-seller The Cat Who Came for Christmas. Apparently I did not disgrace myself: I was brought back for several repeat performances.
In typical Cleveland fashion, he did not give any instructions, but it became clear within a day or two that prioritizing the incoming phone calls was, well, a priority. They came from one of three sources: other Fund agents, the media, and outsiders who wanted to make Cleveland aware of a particular problem facing animals.
Callers in need of money shot to the top of my list, and I would discuss their requests with Cleveland during his frequent, but not daily, calls. But if a project required an immediate decision, I used my best judgment. I knew that spending money on lawyers, or fundraising campaigns, was anathema to Cleveland. Conversely, if money for, say, a veterinarian, would save an animal’s life, he would grumble, but eventually would agree. The first few times I loosened the purse strings on my own were daunting, but it became easier. Too easy, Cleveland might have said.
Long days at the office veered from incessant phone calls to extended quiet stretches when I read some of the books, galleys, and manuscripts that arrived daily by the dozen. For some, Cleveland was asked to write a review for publication. For others, he was asked to give a blurb for the book jacket, a complimentary phrase or two (“a must read,” “compelling,” “gripping”). Still others were unsolicited manuscripts sent by complete strangers, full of gall or naïveté, wanting either a critique or help in finding a publisher. Cleveland’s fame as an author and an activist had its benefits, but also its price.
After work, I had little reason to rush back to Cleveland’s apartment. Under other circumstances, say, with a friend or lover, staying in his apartment with its commanding view of Central Park might have been the biggest perk of baby-sitting the Fund, and Polar Bear. But when the workday was over, I was alone. I didn’t relish the thought of solitary confinement, so I wandered the streets of Manhattan, exploring and observing.
The best part of these nightly walkabouts was the end, when I would visit with the carriage horses that waited for passengers at the southern boundary of Central Park, just across the street from Cleveland’s apartment. I always had a little something in my pocket for these stoic animals that I imagined were as out of place and lonely as I. The drivers would put on a moment’s worth of charm to ask, in thick Irish brogues, if I wanted a ride. When I declined, they chatted up other potential customers. When I asked if I could pat their horses, or give them a carrot or apple or cube of sugar, they shrugged, which I took to be a yes. In those simpler times, no one wondered if I might poison the horses, or bring a lawsuit if my finger was mistaken for a snack.
The horses possessed a patience I couldn’t fathom and stood Zen-like, harnessed, hitched, and forced by blinders to stare straight ahead. Their blinders made it tough to slip them a treat, and sometimes they startled slightly when my outstretched palm appeared out of nowhere. But I thrilled when they gave a gentle snort, or stamped a hoof in appreciation.
Had the drivers been more talkative, I might have connected with them, too—about their horses, or why they came to America. I might even have told them about how, when my Irish ancestors came here (decades before the famine, as my father often reminded me), they set up tents in this very park, just over that low, stone wall. But the men had other things on their minds. Alone, and neither tourist nor resident, I threaded my way through traffic back to Cleveland’s apartment.
Cleveland’s fame as an author and an activist had its benefits, but also its price.
I took hundreds of calls while Cleveland was out of town, but one was in a category of its own.
“I want to speak to Cleveland, and I want to speak to him now,” demanded the no-nonsense voice on the other end of the line.
Many people called asking for Cleveland, and few referred to him as Mr. Amory, but all were, at the very least, civil. It was impossible to know without asking who actually was acquainted with him, and who knew him only by reputation. But I knew one thing about this caller: she was a prickly character. I had no interest in going a round or two, so I played it safe and steered the conversation right down the middle.
“Cleveland is out of the country, ma’am. If you give me your name and number, I’m sure he’ll call you when he returns in a few weeks.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” she admonished. “I said now. This is an urgent matter. Who the hell is in charge there?”
I paused. “I am.”
“Well then, you’d better get on the ball, girl,” she commanded. In the next few minutes she told me of a dire situation involving the Atlantic City Steel Pier Diving Horses. I gasped at the very phrase, diving horses. Had I not been from New Jersey, I might have thought the woman was delusional, or a crank caller making up the most preposterous thing she could conjure. But I knew very well what diving horses were: animals trained to leap, with a woman on their backs, from a 40-foot platform into a ten-foot-deep tank of water. It was an act so unique, and so bizarre, that few visitors to Atlantic City passed up the experience. The horse act was something that seemed always to have been there, and would always be.
I was jolted by the phrase because it took me back to a time and place I hadn’t thought of in years, and hadn’t wanted to. I saw the act once, in the summer of 1964, when I was 11. The diving horse was gray, and while I pretended to view the performance the way most people did—as a shocking, even frightening stunt—there was something else about it that left a deep and lasting impression, something I could not put into words yet which moved me deeply.
Now it was a bittersweet memory. Those magical days on the boardwalk were the last time I experienced my life as whole. Only a few months later, my beloved grandfather would die unexpectedly in front of me; my father would sell our house and move my mother and me to an apartment in another state (while losing my cat in the process); and despite my protestations, I would be sent to a harsh boarding school. From that time on, I considered myself an orphan with parents.
The cranky woman brought my attention back to business. The Steel Pier had been sold, she told me, and the diving horses were part of the deal. No one wanted them for diving, no one wanted them for anything. No one, not their former owner and not their present one, had made any provision for them. Despite the fact that they worked for a living and supported dozens of people, no pension or retirement home awaited. No one gave them a second thought.
In the sell-off of fixtures and furnishings, a dapple-gray horse, Powderface, had already disappeared at a bottom-tier horse auction. Horses at these places were, almost invariably, sold by the pound for slaughter and wound up in Canadian abattoirs. It appeared that Powderface’s final public performance was in one of those auction rings.
One of the other two horses, the lone mare named Shiloh, was sold to a woman for riding. For now, she was safe. But the remaining horse, a twentysomething bay-colored gelding named Gamal, was in jeopardy: while he had spent a year giving lessons at a summer riding camp, he was soon to be resold at an auction.
Somehow, the cantankerous woman had gotten wind of this information and pressed me for an answer.
“Are you listening? One horse is already in a can of dog food and another is soon to follow. What are you going to do about it?” she snapped.
In a sickening rush, I realized that the gray horse I saw that summer must have been Powderface, the one already killed. The story suddenly became personal. The woman could not have known what the diving horses represented to me; nor how, inadvertently, she had pried open a long-suppressed memory of a lost life. In that moment, I would have sold the family jewels, had there been any, to save Gamal.
Although I was a novice with horses, not to mention lacking the authority to make such a major decision, I realized this was my chance to make a difference.
“We’ll take care of him. I promise,” I said.
Even I was surprised by my confidence.
“I know you will,” she said. “And I’ll be watching to make sure.”
She hung up without saying another word.
Was this the decisive moment I had waited for?
I was slightly light-headed as I stood up from the chair behind Cleveland’s big desk and looked between the towers of books and piles of papers covering every flat surface of the bay windowsill. I could still hear the Krishnas chanting, but more softly now. Their work in front of our office building was coming to a close and they were moving on to another cathedral of commerce in need of their supplications.
What had I just done? Promise an unknown woman we’d save the last diving horse? Was this the decisive moment I had waited for? Or, in my eagerness to help, had I just gone too far?
The devotees’ voices were still ardent, the swirling colors of their robes still shimmering, but fading now as they continued east in the dimming light toward Sixth Avenue, then Fifth. I’m sure they would have been gratified if I took their chanting as a kind of blessing for what had just transpired. And maybe it was.
Excerpted from The Last Diving Horse in America: Rescuing Gamal and Other Animals—Lessons in Living and Loving. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Cynthia A. Branigan.