The dunes just north of this remote community on North Carolina's Outer Banks look like a scene from another world.
Shells of abandoned cars dot the landscape between weather-beaten homes on stilts. Coarse grass and thorny shrubs grow out of sandbars. Unpaved roads are accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles.
It is here that a herd of wild horses roams freely across 1,700 acres (680 hectares) of private and public land. The Corolla wild horses, believed to be descended from Spanish mustangs brought here by the conquistadors nearly 500 years ago, have survived for centuries, despite the harsh environment and encroaching development.
Now they face a new threat: Last month, four horses were shot to death.
Most residents see the wild horses as symbols of freedom and endurance, and have fiercely protected them from outsiders. They cannot understand why someone would kill them.
"It's meanness at its worst. That's the only way I know how to describe what happened here," said Gene Snow, director of a group that tracks the horses.
The horse shootings, the first anyone here can recall, happened one morning in mid-November. Police believe someone used a high-powered rifle to kill a chestnut stallion, two bay mares and a black mare from about 100 yards away. One resident's mule was also killed.
The carcasses were found over the last two weeks of November several hundred feet (meters) from one another, presumably where each had wandered after being shot.
The community, which has a year-round population of about 500 but swells to 40,000 during the summer, is pulling together to help find the killer. A dlrs 10,000 bounty has been posted for information that leads to a felony conviction, which could bring up to 15 months in jail.
So far, investigators have had few leads. And they are stumped as to a motive, said Sheriff Susan Johnson.
"These horses are loved by everyone around here, from Corolla to Virginia Beach. People are very protective of these creatures," Johnson said. "If anyone around here knows anything about it, I guarantee it won't stay a secret for very long."
In recent years, dozens of wild horses have been shot on public land across the West, where many ranchers see the animals as competing with livestock for forage. Many of the cases have gone unsolved. Thirty-three wild horses were found shot to death in Nevada at Christmastime in 1998. Three young men have been charged.
Perhaps 50 to 60 wild horses roam this coastal island, which includes the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of the horses' compact, stocky bodies, many believe the animals are descended from the Barbs, an aristocratic breed raised on the Barbary Coast and brought to the Outer Banks as early as 1523 by Spanish explorers.
The wild horses have long been part of the mystique of the Outer Banks.
Lifelong resident Ernie Bowden remembers hearing stories as a child about how the horses were corralled and used for hard labor. Ithe late 1800s, the Coast Guard rode the horses while patrolling the beaches, and farmers used them to herd livestock.
"When World War II came along, people left to help their country and let the horses loose on the beach again," said Bowden, 76. "I guess tourism was the next biggest threat to them."
The Corolla area was a late discovery for developers and did not have electricity until 1968 or telephone service until 1974. Less than 10 years later, though, horses were lounging in the shade of rental cottages and nosing through garbage cans.
Many horses were struck by vehicles on N.C. Highway 12. After three pregnant mares were killed, citizens established the Corolla Wild Horse Fund to protect the animals in 1989, when their numbers were estimated at more than 100.
The group got Currituck County to pass an ordinance protecting the horses. And in 1995 the fund erected a fence, stretching from sound to sea, to keep the horses north of Corolla, where the pavement ends.
Snow and his wife, Donna, both retired from law enforcement, took over the wild horse fund as co-directors in February. Among their first goals was to take a census of the horses with pictures and descriptions of each one. Now, as they comb the dunes in their white Bronco searching for hoofprints in the sand, the Snows just hope to find the horses safe.
"There's definitely a fear each day now of coming down here and finding another horse shot," Donna Snow said.
Locals approach the Snows on their twice-weekly rounds to offer condolences and tips about where they last saw the herds.
"Have they caught them yet?" asked one elderly woman.
Volunteer Fire Chief Bill Vann said that a few years ago, the neighborhood ran a group of young troublemakers out of town after they got drunk and ran over a horse with their car.
"I suspect it's something like that again," he said. "I just hope police find who did this before the local folks get their hands on them."
Bowden, a county commissioner, said people here feel as if they have lost a member of the family.
"We call them wild horses, but they are docile, gentle creatures," he said. "Why anyone would shoot one of these defenseless horses is beyond me."
By DOUG JOHNSON
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