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‘Hard enough to survive’: NC’s wild horses being hurt by people taking selfies, expert says

A selfie taken with one of the Corolla wild mustangs, Chili Pepper. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund censored the person’s face.
A selfie taken with one of the Corolla wild mustangs, Chili Pepper. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund censored the person’s face. Corolla Wild Horse Fund

The biggest danger to North Carolina’s wild horses is not a howling hurricane. It’s people.

For 500 years, the horses have survived the elements. But getting too close, touching or feeding the horses threatens the herd’s survival and puts the people doing it in immediate danger, Corolla herd manager Meg Puckett told The News & Observer on Tuesday.

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Two of the wild mustangs, part of the Corolla wild horse herd in the Outer Banks after Hurricane Florence. Corolla Wild Horse Fund

The nonprofit that looks after and manages the Corolla herd of wild mustangs, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund (CWHF), posted someone’s selfie with one of the horses on Facebook Monday.

CWHF censored the face of the person in the photo, but said it was taken with stallion Chili Pepper.

“He is a young Banker stallion, still fighting to establish his dominance in the herd and build a harem of mares. He is one of only about 200 Colonial Spanish mustangs left in the wild. He is the state horse of North Carolina. He is protected by the Currituck County wild horse ordinance,” Puckett wrote on Facebook.

Chili is NOT a prop for your selfie.”

The problem is rampant, Puckett told the N&O.

“It happens just about every day during the summer,” she said. “It’s constant.”

Puckett will even Google or search tags for photos on Instagram “just to see what horses are showing up on selfies. They’re almost always the same ones.”

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A filly was born to North Carolina’s wild horse herd in Corolla on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. She’s pictured here with her mother. Cathy Forgnone

But what might seem like a harmless photo can be a threat to the wild herd’s survival and a major physical danger to people.

“They’re wild animals,” Puckett said. “They can be really dangerous. They can bite, kick. Nine times out of ten, they’re pretty laid back and docile, but it doesn’t take much.

“If a horse bit down at full power on your arm, it would snap it in a second.”

Puckett has been inundated with calls and messages since The N&O wrote about the horses ahead of and right after Hurricane Florence. But she said even powerful storms are far from the biggest danger to the herd.

“People want to know what the biggest threat to the horses is — that’s it. It’s people,” Puckett said.

“Horses that become habituated risk removal from the wild. They could seriously injure someone. They could become seriously injured themselves. Don’t take advantage of these horses’ good natures,” Puckett wrote on Facebook. “This person is lucky Chili did not bite or kick them. The expression on his face is not one of comfort or happiness. Just because he is approachable doesn’t give anyone the right to do this. He is a wild animal and deserves respect and space.”

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One of the wild mustangs part of the Corolla Wild Horse Herd on the North Carolina Outer Banks after Hurricane Florence. Corolla Wild Horse Fund

If a horse is too used to people, it can put itself in danger, especially if it associates people with food.

“People will try to lure the horses with an apple or carrots,” Puckett said. “that’s when it can get really out of hand.”

Food the horses aren’t used to can make them sick, or even kill them, Puckett said.

“Horses have really sensitive digestive systems. We’ve had horses die from being fed. A foal fed a watermelon rind died.”

And when horses associate people with food, they will begin to approach people and can become pushy or aggressive when they don’t get it.

The horses can also start associating people and food with vehicles, and wild horses have been hit in the past, Puckett said.

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A new filly was born to North Carolina’s wild horse herd in Corolla on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. Cathy Forgnone

Some may think an apple or two won’t harm a horse, but Puckett said that line of logic is dangerous, too.

“You’re not the only ones doing it,” she said. “It adds up.”

Others who are familiar with domesticated horses think they can “read” the wild mustangs and are therefore safe to interact with them. Not so, Puckett said.

“I have horses, too,” she said. “But these mustangs every day teach me something different. You can’t assume you know anything about how they behave.”

The herd’s life in the wild is precarious enough, Puckett said.

“If this kind of behavior continues, before long they may not have a life in the wild. That’s just the sad reality. If you love the horses, admire them from a distance. Help us keep them wild and free,” Puckett wrote on Facebook.

Currituck County has an ordinance that says people must stay at least 50 feet away from the wild horses. It comes with a $500 fine.

People have a difficult time wrapping their heads around horses as wild and dangerous, Puckett said, and most people don’t understand the dangers.

“It’s hard enough to survive,” she said. “They’re losing habitat. We’re not asking much. We just want to educate people. I know the people who do this like the horses and want them there. But this puts everyone in danger. All we’re asking people to do is be respectful and stay away.

“We’re just trying to take care of the horses. They belong to everybody, so we need everyone’s help to keep them safe.”

To donate to the herd’s care and management, click here and select “donate.”

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