Funding for biological research on feral horse populations is often motivated by po debate. Thus, research may start too late to contribute substantially to decisions about population monitoring and management, or to resolve public debate. Feral horse management problems are largely political, economic, and cultural, not biological. Consequently, biologists are often employed to address questions peripheral to the debate. Politicians, managers, and the public demand quick answers, yet the progress of wildlife research is slow. These circumstances may provide a challenge for biologists who must juggle contractual obligations, public responsibilities, and personal publishing goals. We describe our experience researching Kaimanawa feral horse behavior and ecology in New Zealand as a case study in coping with this dilemma. We suggest that research biologists serve their funding body, the public, and colleagues best if they initially relegate the apparently more pressing questions arising from public debate or stipulated by the research contract by giving priority to basic questions of animal behavior, ecology, and population biology. We suggest that research funding agencies get better value for their money if they design research contracts that allow researchers the flexibility to take this approach. In our study, this approach led to important, but unforeseeable, results allowing us to understand variation in feral horse biology with direct implications for management. We would have missed those opportunities to extend knowledge and make conceptual advances if we had just followed the prosaic aims of the contracted research. As with all science, advances in understanding behavior, ecology, welfare, and management of horses depend on researchers looking outside the narrow and short-term perspectives of contractual research and public debate.
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