A pony was struck and killed by a vehicle late Monday at Assateague Island National Seashore.
The horse, a 20-year-old bay mare, stepped into the path of the car, said Rachelle Daigneault, chief of interpretation and education at Assateague.
The accident happened at about 8 p.m. on Labor Day near the Verrazano bridge at the entrance to the park.
Daigneault said the driver, who was visibly upset, was charged with unsafe operation of a motor vehicle. She also said that it's not extremely unusual for horses to collide with vehicles on the island. Since 1982, 29 horses have been hit and killed by vehicles in the park.
"Of those 29, 16 have been in that causeway area," said Daigneault, pointing out that especially during summer, that portion of the island near the causeway is a draw to the animals.
"It gets a great breeze and there’s a lot of good food there," she said. "A horse is going to find that area extremely attractive."
It is also often where visitors to the island first encounter the ponies. The problem occurs when people see the horses there and want to stop and take a look.
"We have a challenge with visitors luring horses to the road," she said. "People lure them to edge of the road in order to pet and feed them. In doing so, they teach the animals that coming to the road is a good thing."
Many visitors may not know that petting and feeding the horses is illegal.
"They [people] need to be at least 10 feet away," Daigneault points out.
But she said that with some 2 million visitors a year, many of them new to island, getting that information across can be difficult.
The Pony Patrol, a group of volunteers, spends time with visitors, educating them about the animals and breaking up "pony jams" - when horses are standing in the middle of the road and causing traffic to back up, Daigneault said.
Assateague officials said visitors to the island need to be aware that the movement of the horses can be unpredictable.
"We ask that people be extremely cautious when they’re driving on the road," Daigneault said. Even horses that appear to be standing in one place can move quickly. Something as small as a biting fly "might drive them into the road unexpectedly."
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