‘Horse detective’ adopts wild mustangs, reunites them with herds (2024)

Clare Staples was an entertainment producer in Los Angeles when she learned about a decades-long dispute involving the plight of wild mustangs.

The controversy centered on whether wild horses should run free in Western states. Advocates said herds should run free on federal lands, while ranchers complained the feral horses ruined grazing fields that are shared with cattle.

Staples was immediately and firmly in the “run free” camp.

With help from her husband, Christopher Polk Read, Staples started a nonprofit in 2016 and began taking in mustangs that were rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, posting stories about them on Facebook and Instagram. The horses were rounded up to comply with land-use plans and keep rangeland healthy, according to the Bureau of Land Management. They’re either sold at auction or held in corrals and fields.

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“On the day they’re rounded up, these horse families are never going to see each other again,” said Staples, 59, founder of the nonprofit Skydog Ranch and Sanctuary, a refuge for wild mustangs and burros that have been purchased at auction and rescued from kill pens and neglectful owners. She also runs two smaller ranches in Malibu, Calif.

Staples began purchasing the horses and working to reunite as many of them as possible with members of their original herds at her 9,000-acre ranch in Bend, Ore. She also rescued wild donkeys from kill pens and took in horses that had been relinquished to other animal rescue agencies.

“I thought I could become a horse detective of sorts and help reunite some of them,” she said.

She’s purchased dozens of horses over the years at Bureau of Land Management auctions, including about 15 mustangs specifically so she could reunite them with other horses at her sanctuary that came from the same wild herds, she said. Portland’s KOIN 6 recently reported on her efforts.

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“We’re able to track some of them down by identifying markings with help from photographers who have followed them,” Staples said.

“It’s a beautiful thing when you can see a wrong righted and witness a happy reunion,” she said, noting that mustangs form tight bonds in the wild and remember each other over long periods of time if they’re separated.

“Sometimes it’s just a boy and a girl horse that were together in the wild, but we have also reunited a mother with her twins,” Staples said.

Photographer and wild horse advocate Scott Wilson is among those who supply Staples with photos so she can try to match horses that were captured during the same roundup.

“We have a good record of these horses in the wild, so she will go to an auction with a family in mind,” Wilson said. “The federal government isn’t presenting you with a family at auction. You’re just getting tag numbers.”

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“If you’re looking for a horse with a tiny white patch over its left eye, Clare will do everything she can to find that horse using photographic documentation,” he said.

One of Staples’s most joyful reunions involved a horse named Blue Zeus and nine members of his family, she said. She had followed photographs of Blue Zeus and his Wyoming herd for years on social media, and she said she was devastated when she learned in 2020 that the band of horses had been run into a Bureau of Land Management trap by a helicopter.

“He and his family were separated after the roundup, and we spent a year tracking them down,” she said. “There were a lot of happy tears to see him running with his family again at the ranch.”

Staples posted an emotional video of the 2021 reunion on YouTube, and a documentary will be released about Blue Zeus’s rescue this fall.

“When they’re rounded up, a lot of them slip through the cracks and go to unloving homes,” she said.

The conflict between ranchers and wild horse advocates has been simmering for decades, beginning in the 1950s when Velma Bronn Johnston mobilized the public after learning that mustangs were being rounded up by ranchers in Nevada and taken to slaughterhouses.

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Currently, about 260 wild horses and 60 burros live at Staples’s Oregon sanctuary, where they graze, run free and are generally left alone unless they need medical attention, she said. The ranch takes in about 25 equines, both horses and donkeys, each year, using donations to help feed them and pay for veterinary care.

“Wild donkeys have been a big part of our sanctuary from the beginning,” Staples said. “They’re beautiful, calm and very curious animals.”

Most of the burros and horses were rounded up in Oregon and nine other Western states by the Bureau of Land Management, then adopted or auctioned for a minimum of $125.

Staples said her love for horses began as a child growing up in Cobham, England, where she found comfort in her neighbors’ horse pastures.

“I would go to the fields where the horses were and I’d sit and talk to them and tell them all my problems,” she said.

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At age 10, she said, she let out every horse in a local riding stable one day.

“I thought the horses would rather be out running in the fields,” Staples recalled.

Fifty years later, she still feels that way.

The Bureau of Land Management plans to capture 20,000 equines this year, which would leave an estimated 67,000 (including about 14,000 new foals) roaming free in 10 Western states, said Jason Lutterman, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.

That’s far fewer than the large herds found on the land in the 1800s, when there were an estimated 2 million wild horses.

“It’s really sad to watch their numbers decrease every year,” Staples said.

Although the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 made it illegal to harass or kill wild horses on federal land, people still illegally kill them.

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In 2022, 25 mustangs were shot to death and left inside Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, while 16 were shot in southeastern Utah. Last year, 31 mustangs were killed during a Bureau of Land Management helicopter roundup of 2,000 horses in Nevada.

Those that are captured are put in holding pens and are at risk for disease, Staples said.

Lutterman said there are about 60,000 captured mustangs in Bureau of Land Management holding corrals and pastures awaiting new homes.

“If they end up not being adopted or auctioned, they’ll graze there for the rest of their lives,” he said, adding that each person who purchases a wild horse at auction must sign an affidavit stating they won’t sell the animal to slaughter.

“We hold the title for the animal up to a year and do a compliance check to make sure the horse or burro is being well cared for,” Lutterman said. After the year is over, the equines are still protected under the 1971 act, he said.

Staples said that looking back, she’s never felt more of a purpose in her life than rescuing and reuniting wild mustangs.

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“When I turned 50, I sat down to find out what made me happy and what I could do that was more purpose-driven,” she said. “I realized that many of my happiest times were because horses had come into my life and saved me.”

“I decided it was time for me to save them right back,” Staples said.

“Wild horses have such deep bonds,” she said. “Who are we as humans to think we’re the only species that cares about their family?”

‘Horse detective’ adopts wild mustangs, reunites them with herds (2024)
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