Jan Carter

“This nation is built on the back of horses,” says Jan Carter, 67, who is trying to save wild horses in Australia. “They should be preserved and protected.” (Ching-Ching Ni/Los Angeles Times)

Adam watched as his mother and father were gunned down.

Rosie was just 4 weeks old when her mother died after being caught in a trap. She almost didn't make it.

Pixie lost her newborn,who suffered a broken leg, and even after she became pregnant again, was still deeply depressed.

If horses could talk, these are a few of the stories they might share now that they live at this small sanctuary on Australia's east coast, home to some of the most bruised and battered wild creatures from the land down under.

Here, the horses roam free, far from the trauma that still awaits many of their kind. That's because Jan Carter, a harpist turned horse rescuer, has devoted her family farm and life savings to helping them.

"This nation is built on the back of horses," says Carter, 67, a petite grandmother with short red hair and deeply tanned skin who drives an old pickup smelling of the hay and earth that covers the soles of her boots. "They should be preserved and protected."

Australia is home to an estimated 300,000 wild horses, the largest such population in the world. This abundance is believed to have put so much strain on the habitat that the Australian government has resorted to controversial mass culling campaigns to protect the country's national parks.

Images of hunters chasing herds of galloping horses from helicopters and shooting them with semiautomatic rifles have sent shock waves across Australia, where horses are proud symbols of the country's pioneer spirit. The killing first came to public attention in 2000, when 600 horses were killed in the Guy Fawkes River National Park in New South Wales, about an hour-and-a-half drive from here.

Public outcry forced the government to halt the helicopter shooting in this part of the country, but it could not stop aerial and ground assaults, often carried out in secret, in other parts of the vast Australian outback. More than 10,000 horses are expected to be shot in Queensland in the next three years, according to an investigation by a newspaper in the state.

Animal rights activists are looking for a gentler solution to horse overpopulation, but that pits them against an unlikely foe -- environmentalists who want to stop the Australian version of the mustang from further trampling pristine land.

"Horses are exotic animals that don't belong in Australia," says Keith Muir, director of Colong Foundation for Wilderness, a Sydney-based nonprofit environmental group that supports the culling of wild horses. "If kangaroos got loose in America, they would be like the horses here. You'll be shooting them like mad to try and control them."

Also known as brumbies, possibly after an early English settler, the animals are descended from horses that were shipped from England to Australia in the late 1700s. Those sturdy beasts survived the harsh journey and extreme frontier conditions and, in the process, advocates say, built up superior genes that could prove invaluable if the brumbies were bred with domesticated horses.

The plight of the wild horses is a reflection of the changing Australian outback as much as a result of a recent record drought.

Small-time farmers and ranchers who once made up the bulk of the Australian economy are being pushed out of existence by giant agribusinesses. When the mom-and-pop outfits put their properties on the market, the lots are usually too small to interest bidders other than the national parks.

Critics say the government keeps buying land populated by large numbers of horses, but it doesn't have the money to support long-term management.

Horse advocates want a federal policy that bans shooting everywhere and manages overpopulation through infertility drugs and adoption programs. Some have even proposed using the horses as tourist attractions, much like the Dartmoor ponies of southwest England.

"But to get the Australian government to that stage is very difficult," Carter says. "They do not address the problem. What they do is wait for the population to build up, shoot them from the air or ground, wait a few years and do it again."

In New South Wales, where the aerial shooting has been replaced by a trapping program, the animals are turned over to people such as Carter to prepare for adoption.

In the last two years, "Save the Brumbies," her nonprofit group staffed by four full-time volunteers, has taken in more than 250 horses. But that's a tiny portion of the number of animals rounded up with nowhere to go but the abattoir.