Sarah Low ’03 studied architecture at MIT, but now she spends most days either in the operating room or outdoors as a veterinarian. Her area of interest is free-roaming horses, a population that is growing in the United States: the number of federally managed mustangs in the western states is projected to reach 2.8 million by 2040 if no action is taken. “They’re competing with other truly wild species and destroying a lot of habitat,” Low says. “It’s become a crisis situation for federal land management.” The current strategy is to remove them from the land to holding facilities or private adoption. There are some 50,000 horses in federal holding facilities, she notes, and their lifetime care historically costs taxpayers roughly $48,000 each.
Contraception is a long-term goal for federal management, but administering a contraceptive vaccine typically involves chasing horses into traps with a helicopter. This frightens them so much that it is difficult to recapture them for the boosters that are required each year, and it can lead to injuries and separate families. Low’s nonprofit, Humane Horse Handling, is testing a low-stress method using the approach and retreat of a drone to produce a “curious alert” response, inducing entire herds to follow.
Low’s love for horses began in childhood, when her mom took her on pony rides at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. She then took riding lessons near the Del Mar racetrack, which she commuted to by bus after school. “The barn became my sanctuary,” recalls Low, who was a self-described latchkey kid. “It was a place I could go instead of being alone.”
At MIT she joined the equestrian club, and between classes, took jobs training rats (in a neuroscience lab) and an African gray parrot named Alex (at the MIT Media Lab, working with famed animal cognition expert Irene Pepperberg ’69).
She detoured into TV after graduation, including a stint as an assistant editor on MTV’s Pimp My Ride. She trained horses on the side, landing a job trapping feral horses in Hawaii—and that led her to vet school.
Now living in rural Blacksburg, Virginia—with three horses of her own, plus husband Ellis Low ’98 and their daughter—she provides low-cost veterinary care through Mountain View Humane. But since cofounding Humane Horse Handling in 2018, she has focused on ensuring that free-roaming horses are treated compassionately, not only by federal authorities but also when they are placed with private owners. “This is really about preserving and fostering the human-animal bond,” she says.
This story also appears in the March/April issue of Technology Review's MIT News magazine.
Photo (top): Low with one of her three horses.