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Quest for the perfect selfie impacting North Carolina's wild horse herds

National park service wild horses.jpg
National Park Service
Cape Lookout National Seashore on Facebook
(Photo credit: National Park Service)

Two people were recently charged with a crime after getting too close to one of North Carolina’s wild horses, and earlier this year a group pulled a wild foal aboard their boat – forcing caretakers to domesticate the animal rather than letting it live a life of roaming free among its herd. The wildlife biologist that oversees the herd for the National Park Service said such incidents are likely more common than reported.

Several herds of wild horses—about 400 in total—live throughout North Carolina’s barrier islands and can be seen strolling along beaches and wooded areas near Cape Lookout, Beaufort, Ocracoke, and Corolla.

They're descendants of domesticated horses that were brought to the area by Spanish explorers sometime in the 1500s.

Cape Lookout National Seashore Wildlife Biologist Sue Stuska said they’re a tourist draw in eastern North Carolina, but in the day and age of social media and the quest for a perfect selfie, some visitors get too close to the wild animals.

“We don’t really have statistics on how much it happens when nobody’s looking or people that are looking that don’t report it,” she explained, “We suspect that … well, we know that it happens more often than we’re actually able to do anything about it.”

Horse selfie.jpg
(Photo credit: National Park Service)
Cape Lookout National Seashore on Facebook
(Photo credit: National Park Service)

Often, Suska said, the visitors don’t intend to cause any harm.

She said, “A lot of what they do is unintentional than intentional, they just want to get closer so they can see better and they don’t realize that they are changing the horses’ behavior, you know, horses are moving to get away from them.”

And she said they also don’t understand that the horses are, indeed, wild animals that should be given a wide berth.

“They don’t recognize the danger, partly because the horses spend a lot of time standing around. They’re grazing, they’re resting, whatever, so they don’t look scary,” said Stuska.

In May, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund posted a video of a stallion fight on Facebook, cautioning people that the horses are wild, unpredictable and can be dangerous. Watch that video here:

They fight hard and Stuska said it’s a natural behavior that is amazing to watch - from a safe place.

“Most people don’t see stallions seriously fighting each other. The ground shakes, and they’re biting at each other and turning a kicking and wheeling and it just happens really fast,” she said.

Anyone near the horses when they start running and fighting nearby, she said, should stay in their vehicle and wait for them to move on.

In March, a Shackleford Banks foal followed a group of people for several hours – Stuska said the newborns instinctively follow their dam, but when separated from their mother may follow instead anyone nearby.

With the best of intentions, thinking that the foal would drown, they lifted it into the boat and left, removing the horse from its natural habitat, its mother, and the herd. Although these visitors thought that they were doing the right thing, this foal couldn’t be returned to Shackleford Banks and will now live a life as a domesticated animal, rather than as a wild stallion.

Wild horses aren’t the only animals that live on national park land across the U.S. that occasionally receive harassment from visitors. Several visitors have been gored this year by bison after getting too close to the massive animals – three at Yellowstone National Park alone.

Stuska said, for the most part, those that think it’s okay to walk right up to the animals in the park just don’t understand the dangers – to the animals or themselves.

“They don’t recognize the concept of wildness in animals. Like the people who took the baby bison and put it in their car out west because they thought it was cold,” Stuska said.

In May 2016, two tourists saw a baby bison, decided it looked cold and needed to be rescued, so they loaded it into their car and drove it to a ranger station. The bison calf couldn’t be reunited with its mother and was later euthanized because it caused a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.

Stuska said it’s important for visitors to understand that the wild horses, bison and other wild animals that live on park land are beautiful to observe in their wild habitat, but people should not expect to interact with them.

“Let them alone, watch from a distance,” she implored, “If they are eating, let them eat. They need to eat. They need to drink. They need to rest. They don’t need to be moving away from that prime grazing spot because people got too close.”

Stuska leads a Horse Sense and Survival Guided Walk at Cape Lookout National seashore about once a month, and suggests this is a better, more peaceful way to learn more about them, snap a few photos for social media without disturbing them. Learn more about the tours and how to reserve a spot here: https://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/horse-tours.htm

Annette is originally a Midwest gal, born and raised in Michigan, but with career stops in many surrounding states, the Pacific Northwest, and various parts of the southeast. She has been involved in the media industry in eastern North Carolina for more than three years. An award-winning journalist and mother of four, Annette moved to ENC to be closer to family – in particular, her two young grandchildren. It’s possible that a -27 day with a -68 windchill in Minnesota may have also played a role in that decision. In her spare time, Annette does a lot of toddler and baby cuddling, reading, designing costumes for children’s theater and producing the coolest Halloween costumes anyone has ever seen. She has also worked as a diversity and inclusion facilitator serving school districts and large corporations. It’s the people that make this beautiful area special, and she wants to share those stories that touch the hearts of others. If you have a story idea to share, please reach out by email to westona@cravencc.edu.