University of Vermont AAHS


Shackleford Banks, NC, wild horses free of EIA:
Roundup on Shackleford Banks, January 16-22, 1999
Margaret Willis
Director, Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc.
[reproduced from Caution:Horses, Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall 1999]

Roundups had been contracted for by the National Park Service, Cape Lookout National Seashore with the NC Department of Agriculture, Veterinary Division since 1996 to reduce herd numbers from 184 to a representative herd of 60 horses and test for equine infectious anemia. Equine infectious anemia (EIA) is a viral disease exclusive to equids. This disease is vectored from horse to horse by biting flies and by careless humans who do not follow proper procedures when giving injections to multiple horses, etc. The characteristics of the virus and habits of the fly \actors are such that it is not that easy to transmit this disease as the fly tends to prefer to remain with one horse while it is feeding and does not travel far after feeding or if interrupted during feeding. The virus itself is present in inapparent carriers (EIA positive equids without symptoms) in relatively low numbers, is fragile once exposed to air and drying and the concern rests with the wet blood on the external mouth parts of the fly. Experts agree that the risk of a horse becoming infected with EIA is greatest when a horse is exposed to untested horses within the general domesticated population, such as would occur at a trail tide or show that requires no proof of negative testing for horses participating. Many experts would prefer stalling their personal horses 200 yards (the accepted safe distance determined by extensive research) from known, properly quarantined EIA carriers to stalling it within 200 yards of any untested horse.

Since US Congressman Welter B. Jones' (R-NC) Shackleford Banks Wild Horses Protection Act was signed into law last August by President Clinton, Cape Lookout National Seashore has been mandated to allow a minimum of 100 of these horses on Shackleford Banks, managed in partnership with the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, a North Carolina IRS 501(c)(3) non profit Corporation. Extensive genetics studies conducted by Dr. E. Gus Cothran, University of Kentucky, and work done over a 20 year period by Dr. Daniel I. Rubenstein, Princeton University, determined that 100 is the minimum population, assuming that an occasional population "bloom" is permitted, that can allow for a genetically viable herd of Shackleford Banks horses, a unique breed grouping of cultural and historic importance. Physical characteristics and Dr. Cothran's genetic analyses have shown these horses to have Colonial Spanish origins and to be in possession of the Q-ac Blood factor (originated with the Spanish Jennet of 400 or more years ago) which has been found in only three equid populations in the world: Puerto Rican Paso Fines, the Prior Mountain Mustangs of Montana and Shackleford Banks. An investigation of historical records has demonstrated the presence of ancestors of the Shackleford Banks horses on what is now known as Shackleford Banks since at least 1565, probably since 1525. According to one expert, Dr. Jay F. Kirkpatrick, ZooMontana, the Shackleford Banks horses are the oldest documented population in North America and should be managed with the utmost care to ensure their preservation.

The first roundup in November of 1996 disclosed 76 of 101 horses as EIA positive. All were healthy, inapparent carriers of this disease and were not suffering from any symptoms. These horses were destroyed in a clandestine middle of the night debacle in Clinton NC. Several horses eluded capture and were not tested.

The second roundup in March of 1997 found 5 of 103 horses to be EIA positive. These horses, also inapparent carriers, were isolated at an approved 192 acre quarantine site developed and operated by the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, Inc. and regulated by the North Carolina Dept. of Agriculture. All horses were rounded up and tested.

The third roundup in March of 1998 found 3 of 106 horses to be EIA positive, These horses were inapparent carriers and were isolated at the quarantine site. Two horses were killed during this roundup which included the use of a helicopter and hunting dogs. Two horses eluded capture during the roundup and were not tested.

The Foundation, in consultation with Dr. Charles Issel of the University of Kentucky, internationally recognized expert on equine infectious anemia, devised with the input and cooperation of the new Superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore, a plan whereby these unique horses would be tested according to guidelines developed in 1997 by the American Association of Equine Practitioners and approved by the USDA, and the American Horse Council. An all-out effort was required to eliminate this threat from these horses. While it is true that the threat was more from man's management (the horses were totally unaffected by EIA, lived normal life spans and are isolated from and no threat to the domestic population by virtue of living on an island that is more than a mile and a half from the closest point to the mainland), the fact remained that once EIA was discovered among these horses, the disease regulators assumed control.

Regulators would have continued this process until the last horse on Shackleford either tested positive or negative. The problem here was that roundups were being held only once a year and the disease can be eliminated that way only by sheer luck. We were looking at additional horses acquiring the disease each year, further risking an already small population, and at some point during this process perhaps reducing the population to a genetically non-survivable few. Knowing that EIA positive horses produce negative foals some 85 to 95 % of the time, the Foundation had pursued quarantine rather than destruction of EIA positive Shackleford horses throughout this process. This would have enabled the ultimate preservation of this group of horses should only a few survive the management for EIA process.

The planning for and conduct of this roundup involved the participation of the Foundation, Cape Lookout National Seashore (including Superintendent Karren Brown herself), Dr. Charles Issel himself (who in addition to participating in the roundup, also performed developmental 2 hour ELISA in-the-field testing for EIA), US Army Capt. Brglez, DVM with 5 Veterinary Assistant / Medic Soldiers, and over 60 volunteers - NC horsemen and members of the general public. Daniel Rubenstein, PhD of Princeton University, who had been documenting the behavior and some health aspects of the herds for the past 20 or so years had graciously shared his information and advice. Cassandra Nunez, PhD, also of Princeton University, a former student of Dr. Rubenstein's and a scholar on the subject of these particular horses participated in the roundup and provided information and advice. The NC Dept. of Agriculture, Vet. Div. drew and tested blood in the AGID (Coggins) format. The sincere all-out efforts and complete cooperation of all participants and planners was marvelous to see and experience. A spirit of cooperation and camaraderie was created and molded during this effort that almost unreservedly assures the future of the Shackleford Banks horses and their continuing presence on Shackleford Banks.

Shackleford Banks is 9 miles long, aligned nearly east-west, varies from 1/4 to 1 mile wide, and encompasses in excess of 3000 acres. In the past, prior to the existence of Cape Lookout National Seashore, the local people had rounded up the ancestors of these horses by virtually surrounding and walking the horses into the capture pens. This was the plan for this roundup as it is less pressuring thus less likely to terrorize horses which can force them into making dangerous choices. It takes time and effort - particularly considering that people are walking through sand, over and between large dunes, through extensive shrub thickets, marshes and bogs, and through a maritime forest with lots of vines, briars and poison ivy. These smart little horses know well how to hide just on the other side of a dune or in a little \alley and within the thickets and forest. One can walk right into them without being aware of their presence until near contact or right by them then turn to see alert, soft brown eyes quietly watching.

Once out in the open, these horses can disappear before your eyes then reappear some distance away, speeding in excess of 32 miles an hour, noses in the air and showing you their heels. Most seem to enjoy playing these hide and seek games, almost smiling as they slip away. But, we caught them all, though it did take four days. All 114 of them. We knew, through observations over the last several years, each individual horse, their companions, their home territory, So we knew how many there were prior to the roundup and who remained missing at the end of the third day. The last 6 were very difficult, two alpha males, two bachelor males and a mare with her 1998 foal. For these last elusive horses we did use a high flying spotter plane who guided us through the dunes to each horse enabling us to get them onto the ocean beach which is ridged with a line of bra dunes. From there we were able to get them to the capture pens by forming a U beside and behind them with ATVs. Walkers were no longer effective as these horses showed such speed that even ATVs were hard put to keep up with them. One simply outran the ATVs (have no idea how fast this horse was traveling) and disappeared over the dune crest. When he was again herded to the ocean beach he had tired a bit but still managed to give all a run for the money, almost escaping over the dunes again and nearly blasting past the capture pen leads to the other end of the island, (the capture pens and leads are completely across a narrow 1/4 mile wide portion of the island and about 6 miles from the western end, 3 miles from the eastern end).

The weather was glorious, the roundup was successful with no injuries to the horses, and all but a few, mostly the old, are in excellent condition... AND they all tested negative for EIA.

The release was something to see. We removed the gates, expecting a stampede as had always occurred during release after past roundups and worrying that again horses would be injured or foals separated from their dams when passing through the gate openings. A few of the horses wandered out. More noticed this and began wandering out. They stood, relaxed, eating hay and grass. Then one lifted his head and looked west to freedom, obvious excitement began building in him. Then others lifted their heads and looked into a distance now unmarred by fence. They gathered themselves and began moving off, a bit unbelievingly for a moment. The message telegraphed to the others. Heads high, ears forward, almost as one, the horses, gaining speed with obvious joy, moved back into freedom. For a long while I could see little heads and flying manes above the grasses and bushes, surging on into the distance, going home.

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