Monday, June 29, 2009

Killing Them Softly

I have been the Director of the CWHF for nearly three years now. In that time, I have seen a tremendous expansion in the size and scope of commercial businesses related to viewing the wild horses. It is a lucrative business. For the most part, the horse tour companies are being more respectful than ever this summer. In part, it is due to the eyes of the county being upon them, and also due to tour guide training and education provided by CWHF.

It still seems however, that there is no limit to the measures that certain tour companies will take to profit from the presence of the wild horses. On June 27th, there were three domestic horses being ridden north on the 4X4 beach with two other horses being “ponyed.” (led by riders on horseback). I observed at least one rider drinking. A sanctuary patrol officer stopped to ask them to not continue and explained that even if vaccinated, their domestic horses can carry diseases to the wild horses for which they have no immunity. She also warned them that the wild stallions would see them as a threat and may charge them. They did not care. In fact, they were defiant. I also stopped them but they had no interest in hearing what I had to say and told me that they were “delivering” the horses to the owner of Barrier Island “Eco” Tours. This horse tour company operates two monster buses and at least one suburban. They told me that the owner had built a corral and would be keeping the horses on his property on the north beach. His plan for the horses is a commercial enterprise to give horseback rides to tourists. In essence --to ride the domestic horses among the wild horses.

As they were riding up the beach, a stallion appeared on top of the dunes. He did what comes naturally to him. He charged the intruders to his territory in an attempt to drive them off and protect his harem. One of the horses reared, throwing its adult male rider to the ground. Sheriff’s deputies had to chase the wild stallion back several times. Unfazed, the riders continued, stopping occasionally to talk to curious beachgoers and on one occasion, allowing a bikini clad woman to step from the bed of her truck into the saddle and go for a pony ride of sorts. All the while, the female rider that was giving the “pony ride” had a bottle of alcohol in her hand. At one point in time, they were riding illegally on the Currituck Wildlife Refuge. Clearly, here is yet another group of individuals who have little or no respect for law, or for the wellbeing of the wild horses.

One of our volunteers was told by the owner that the domestic horses “won’t hurt the wild horses,” and that there were domestic horses kept on the beach in the past and nothing happened to the wild horses then. The “then” was 20 years ago and the wild horses had a range of over 27 miles and at least 25,000 acres. Chances of interaction between a wild horse and a handful owned by a former commissioner were far less likely than today. Today, the wild horses’ range is 7, 500 acres and there are more wild horses, more houses, more vehicles, and more people that in the “past.” Also -- there was no one looking after or monitoring the wild horses “then” to be a voice for them.

To expose the wild horses to domestic horses on a daily basis is an outrage. The Colonial Spanish Mustangs of the Currituck Outer Banks are already on the endangered breed list. To create a situation with the potential to wipe out the entire herd is beyond irresponsible – it is reprehensible. Our Commissioners and county staff are working on the legal issues as I write this and for that I am very grateful. Barrier Island “Eco” Tours is in violation of at least one county ordinance and possibly more. The legal process has been set into motion. And I haven’t even touched on the safety issues involved when you put inexperienced and unsuspecting riders on horseback and risk the same kind of interaction that occurred on Saturday. Disastrous.

The wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs of the Currituck Outer Banks have managed to survive nearly 500 years of hurricanes and fierce nor’easters. Their Spanish and Arab ancestry is most apparent when they are trotting, floating suspended, like a hydrofoil hovers and skims just above the water. Stallions are heavily muscled, strong and proud, fighting fiercely to protect their own or acquire new mares. They are descended from the horses of kings. They are at the heart of what represents the spirit of the Outer Banks – wild, rugged, tough – free. Billy Clayton, or anyone else, must not be allowed to keep domestic horses on the north beach and must not be allowed to profit from the presence of the wild horses with NO REGARD for their wellbeing.


Friday, June 19, 2009


Remember this name. Kendra James. She is a recent college graduate who I understand is planning on becoming a teacher. She was charged today for failure to report injuring a wild horse on the north beach of Corolla on March 29th. She knew she hit the horse but she drove away leaving him to suffer for hours and hours. It was during an unusually hot spell for March – temperatures were in the high 90’s during the day and the 80’s at night. The insects were unbearable. When found, he literally had a moat of sorts around him. He could only pivot around in a circle on his uninjured left hind leg. He was shaking from the effort to stay upright.

Almost all of us have made mistakes when we were young. Done foolish things that we regret. But this young woman was VERY familiar with the northern beaches. Her parents have owned a home in Carova for years. It is impossible to spend even a short time there and NOT know that there are wild horses on the sand roads and beaches at all hours. She would also have to know that the beaches and sand roads of the northern Outer Banks are very dark at night. There are no such things as street lights on the northern most beaches. The speed limit is 15. She hit a horse, close to the dune line, with enough force to cause a compound fracture. That is hard to do if you are going 15 miles an hour or not impaired in some manner. She stated that she was going 20 – 25 miles an hour and that it was foggy. Even more reason to not be out driving around on the beach in the predawn hours.
She also stated that a group of horses ran out in front of her and she tried to swerve but the sand ruts were too deep. The first volunteer on the scene stated that there were no other prints except that of the injured horse and that tire tracks led up to the horse and then backed off at an angle. Kendra, is an experienced beach driver and, there WERE NO DEEP RUTS on the beach where the horse was hit. I saw that myself.

She finally admitted to hitting the horse to an investigating officer but not until nearly two and a half months had passed. She knew, and she left him. She stated that she “didn’t know who to call.” All she had to do was call 911. What about taking responsibility for your actions? The outcome would have been the same because the break was so bad, but he could have at least been spared the hours and hours of agonizing pain that he suffered.

At 21, everyone should know that it is wrong to severely injure an animal and leave it suffer. I will never understand how she justified not notifying anyone that could help the horse, or how she justified not taking responsibility for her actions. Is this what she will teach her students?

We are so grateful to Currituck County Sherriff Susan Johnson, Detective Vic Lasher, Lt. Jason Banks, and any other police officers who assisted in the arrest. They treated this crime with importance it deserved and sent a message that irresponsible behavior will not be overlooked or tolerated.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Path to Protection

Since euthanization of Spec, who was hit by a driver who again heartlessly left another horse to suffer in agony, we have received more e mails and letters than I can count. Many have asked, “Why aren’t these horses better protected?” and “What is your organization doing to find protection?”

Some history is necessary before anyone can understand just how far we have come in the last two and a half years. Did you know that in 1926, there were five to six thousand wild horses all up and down the Outer Banks? (National Geographic) Now there are 98 north of Corolla and 127 on Shackleford Banks (Cape Lookout National Seashore). What happened to all those horses over the last 73 years? They had no protection. In fact, when the National Park Service began buying the land that is now the Hatteras Island National Seashore, there was a bounty placed on wild horses in 1938. Wild horses have never been recognized as native wildlife and are still considered today to be a “feral,” “invasive species” or “pest animal” by the Department of the Interior (US Fish & Wildlife and National Park Service) and the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve.

From the 1950s up until the late '80s, removal of the horses was standard operating procedure for the National Park service, which owns and manages a large portion of the Outer Banks. In addition, anyone who wanted a wild horse could just capture it and sell it if they wished. That is one of the reasons that we have no horses that are any color other than bay, sorrel, black, or chestnut. The unusually colored horses were caught by residents and sold off years ago.

It is commonly but mistakenly believed that the wild horses of Corolla live on a protected sanctuary. They do not. Although defined as a wild horse sanctuary, seventy percent of the land they roam is privately owned by individuals and limited partnerships. Out of the 7,544 acres available, the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve owns 331 acres, the Nature Conservancy owns 62 acres, United States Fish & Wildlife owns approximately 2,500, and the rest is private land. There are over 3,000 platted lots on the private land and over 1300 houses. The beach is the road and the only way that residents and vacation rentals can reach their homes.

The wild horses on Shackleford Banks (Cape Lookout National Seashore) – genetically the same breed as the Corollas (registered Colonial Spanish Mustangs) have been federally protected since 1997.These horses are managed by the National Park Service who once took steps to remove them. The Shackleford Banks Act, written by US Congressman Walter Jones, mandates not only that the herd be managed at a healthier number than the Corolla herd (120 – 130 as opposed to 60 - but that’s a whole other topic) it also makes doing what has been done to our horses (7 shot and 2 hit) a FEDERAL OFFENSE. The Shackleford herd roams 3,000 acres of land owned solely by the National Park Service, not inhabited, and accessible only by boat.

In 1989, Currituck County enacted a Wild Horse Ordinance as the Corolla area was exploding with development and horse/human interactions were becoming more frequent. There is a link to the ordinance on our home page. If it were not for the efforts of the county, there would be no consequences for impacting the life of a Corolla wild horse at all. We are grateful to the county for their foresight as it is still the only protection that they have.

To make a complex and lengthy saga short, we have been working tirelessly to acquire the same level of protection for the Corolla horses as the Shackleford horses enjoy. It is complex because the Corolla horses roam state, federal, AND private land and the missions of the state and federal agencies are in conflict with the presence of the horses.

Those are just a few of the many obstacles on the path to protection but we HAVE made progress. DNA testing and registration by the Horse of the Americas registry confirms the Spanish origin of the wild horses. Congressman Jones was here in Corolla last October and other legislators have been receptive as well. We have just finished up a project with the Currituck School District that involved primary, elementary, and middle school students in a letter writing campaign. Hundreds of students wrote letters asking that the Colonial Spanish Mustang be designated the North Carolina State Horse and both Representative Bill Owens and Senator Marc Basnight have indicated that they will sponsor and support such legislation. Students in Dare County will be participating in the fall and we hope to have at least a thousand letters for a formal presentation in November.

The children of Currituck and Dare Counties are standing up for the horses. If you live in North Carolina and have a child or classroom that would like to participate, visit our home page and click on the NC State flag. Or just read what some of the children have written – it will inspire you.

If you aren’t a member of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, please become one now. Members are voters and voters give the horses a much needed voice. I need to be able to show our federal legislators that thousands of people, all over the country, believe that these horses are worthy of preservation and protection. Don’t they deserve the same protection as their wild relatives on Shackleford Banks? Perhaps if they are the state horse of North Carolina we will be one step closer.