A Tale of Two Pony Herds


In a few days, hundreds of people hoping to buy a pony will gather in tiny Chincoteague, Va. Hanging over the annual auction, shimmering like a mirage in the summer heat, will be the legend of Misty, the wild pony at the center of Marguerite Henry's famous 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague." But the reality is this: If Misty were alive today, she would probably live in Maryland, not in Virginia.

Misty was a wild pony (at least, until she was auctioned), living unfettered and free on Assateague Island, which straddles both states. Today, the little island horses living free and wild are on the Maryland side of Assateague; their Virginia counterparts are a commercial property, herded and handled by humans regularly.

The 37-mile-long sliver of sand called Assateague Island is home to two separate herds of similar size (170 horses in Maryland, 150 in Virginia). Originally all one herd, they are now separated by a fence at the state line -- and by almost diametrically opposed philosophies about the best way to manage them.

"The Maryland herd is owned by no one," says Allen Rutberg, a senior scientist at the National Humane Society. "By contrast, there's Chincoteague. . . ."

The herd there is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, and Mr. Rutberg says, "They're interested in preserving the illusion that they have wild horses. At this point, it's now such an artificial herd it hardly matters. They're vaccinated, rounded up and herded. . . ."

That veterinary care clearly shows the philosophical difference in the way the two herds are managed, says Ron Keiper. He is a distinguished professor of biology at the Mont Alto campus of Pennsylvania State University, and he has spent 20 years studying the Assateague horses.

"At the northern end [the Maryland herd], you get to do your thing," Mr. Keiper says of the horses. "But if you get sick, you either get over it or you die. At the southern end, you're pampered . . . but you're not as wild."

"We manage it [the herd] as a wildlife resource," says Carl Zimmerman, a resource management specialist at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland.

The shaggy little horses are not native to the island. When they arrived there is not entirely clear, although some researchers put them on the barrier island -- in fact, on barrier islands from Maryland to Georgia -- as early as the 1700s.

In the next century, as legend has it, a Spanish ship carrying about 100 small horses ran aground on Assateague, and some of the horses survived and swam ashore.

There is some evidence to support that theory, including material uncovered some years ago in Spanish archives that suggested that the ponies came from a ship called the San Lorenzo that ran aground early in the 1800s. That ship, according to material published by the National Park Service, was carrying small ponies that had been blinded so they could be lowered into mines and worked. The ponies had been working in Panama and were being carried back to Spain.

A fishing-rights commissioner's journal for the year 1826 reports an encounter with 45 small horses, many of them blind. Those horses were smaller than today's Assateague horses, and it is believed that the herd mingled with larger horses put on Assateague by Virginia residents, perhaps as far back as the mid-1700s.

Why the horses' owners put them on Assateague is open to speculation.

"Tax evasion," says Mr. Zimmerman. "Also, free range -- no need to fence."

"The firm documentation is early to mid-18th century," says Mr. Rutberg, who has a doctorate in biology and has studied large animals such as horses and bison. "They were put out there by colonists seeking to evade a fence tax." The tax had been imposed on residents as a way to get revenue from livestock owners.

John Bloxom, a resident of Chincoteague and chairman of the Fire Department's pony committee, offers the simplest view of the horses' tenure on the island: "A long time. As long as I can remember."

Both herds share common ancestors: settlers' horses and -- maybe -- the surivors of the Spanish shipwreck. The division of the herd in the 1960s evolved out of the fact that Assateague is divided between two states and two federal agencies in a bureaucratic tangle of spaghetti -- "I lay awake at night thinking about this," jokes John Schroer, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Essentially, the division is this: In Virginia, the Fire-Department-owned herd is allowed to graze on the land of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The Fire Department issued a grazing permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge. Virginia's portion of Assateague Island is about 17 miles long and the herd is fenced to confine it to certain parts of the island.

In Maryland, the ponies are part of the wildlife on Assateague Island National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service. Maryland's portion of the island is a little larger, about 20 miles, and the ponies roam free over all of it, to the delight of visitors all year round.

"The Park Service is assuming they're part of the natural world to some extent," says Mr. Schroer, speaking of the Maryland herd. "In the refuge, we consider it an outside animal, managed by special permit. We do not look at it as part of the natural system."

The Virginia herd

The Virginia herd is managed as a commercial resource. Defenders call it a unique fund-raising tradition; critics call it a profit-oriented "foal factory." The Chincoteague Fire Department sells off 60 or so foals every year to put funds into the Fire Department.

The annual pony swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, and the auction the next day, draw thousands of people from across the country. The swim and auction, and the Henry book, have made the horses famous as "Chincoteague ponies." The Fire Department's stewardship of the herd dates to the 1920s, predating the federal parkland by at least two decades.

The Fire Department pays $1,500 a year in grazing fees to let the horses stay in fenced areas on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. In the course of each year, the herd is rounded up at least three times; twice for veterinary care, and once for the annual auction of the herd's foals, held on the last Thursday in July.

"The fire company does a good job in taking care of the ponies," says Mr. Schroer of wildlife refuge. The grazing permit at the refuge, where the ponies spend most of their time, has a lot of rules and restrictions, particularly about veterinary care.

"They cannot exceed 150 adult animals," Mr. Schroer says. "This is a herd maintained at a fairly constant level. They maintain it through the penning and auction."

The fire company keeps a vet on retainer for the herd, Dr. Charles Cameron, whose first horse was a Chincoteague pony and who now owns three of them. He and his two partners worm, test and vaccinate the herd in two roundups each year. Without such care, the horses could not be sold.

"We take care of the horses," says Mr. Bloxom. "We can't have ours on the road -- we have to keep them fenced. . . . We watch them better. The Maryland horses are a lot different. They never get rounded up. They're hard to handle."

In addition to paying the vet bills for the horses' care, the fire company also buys hay in the winter so the herd does not go hungry. Mr. Bloxom estimates the annual veterinary costs at about $1,800; the cost of hay varies, depending on how harsh the winter is and how much hay is needed. Last year's hay ran about $1,200, he says; 400 bales at $3 a bale.

The sale profits also vary from year to year, depending on the bidding. Last year's sale of 62 foals and five yearlings brought in about $63,000.

In recent years, the Fire Department has tightened some of the auction rules; buyers are now required to have proper transport for the foals, and the veterinarian is present whenever the horses are herded or handled.

"It's not likely that this event is going to end," says Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association. Each year, she and others in her group go to the auction and give each new owner a full-care starter kit for the foals: Foal-Lac (equine baby formula), a manual and literature.

"We're trying to educate the buyers of the foals," Ms. Lohnes says. "Along the way, I believe we have educated the firemen."

But the pony swim and sale, now in its 70th year, continues to irk the National Humane Society and others.

"They force these stallions into very tight corrals where they bite and kick each other," says Mr. Rutberg, who last saw an auction in 1987. "Then they pull these foals away from their mothers. It's ++ turning this into a pony ranch, with the goal being foal production."

"I think what they [the horses] have lost is their ability to be natural," agrees Mr. Keiper, the Penn State researcher. "All those horses together in that pen -- what do you do to their social organization? I've always said the swim and the roundup is not that big a deal for the older animals. I think the stress comes from the penning."

The Fire Department defends the auction on the grounds of tradition, and points to the vet care and feeding of the animals as better ways to handle the herd than to just let it run wild, unprotected from disease and food shortages.

"We check them all year round," says Mr. Bloxom. "We test them. We round them up in July and then we turn them back [onto Assateague]. . . . There's a lot of work involved.

"They help the company out moneywise, the colts we sell. It buys equipment for the fire company."

"Since we sell them, we have to go the extra mile and give them all the inoculations they need," says Don Leonard, another island resident who has long been involved with the pony swim and sale.

.' "It's the humane thing to do."

The Maryland herd

If the Virginia herd is a visitor with a special pass on Assateague Island, the Maryland herd is a full-fledged member of the natural neighborhood.

Researchers who have studied the herd agree that it's astonishing how well the horses have managed in their adopted habitat.

"This is the second-harshest environment I've ever seen for a horse -- the first being the Northern Territory in Australia," says Jay Kirkpatrick, a Montana biologist who developed the contraceptive vaccine now being given to the herd to control its numbers.

"Insect load, lack of fresh water, low-quality foliage . . ."

Mr. Keiper, the Penn State researcher, first began studying the Assateague horses in 1975. He began his work with the Virginia herd but later switched to the Maryland animals.

"I was interested in the long-term development, and at the southern end, they sold most of the young," he says. Because the young went to private buyers, he was not able to do extended research.

So he moved his research to the northern end -- the Maryland end. Two decades later, his studies have yielded a couple of books (one, a children's book, he ruefully notes, is no competition for the Henry book), expanded the scientific understanding of horses in a natural state and served as the base research used in developing that innovative contraceptive, which can be given to the mares without rounding up the herd or handling the horses. (See accompanying story.)

His research, and that of others who have worked with the horses, is rooted in the belief that the Assateague horses are wild animals and should not be penned, sold or tamed.

"We ask our experimental animals, 'What do you do,' not 'What can you do?' " Mr. Keiper explains.

The wildness of the Maryland herd has made it a unique wildlife asset, scientists say.

"These are not just wild horses . . . these are Misty and Stormy," says Mr. Kirkpatrick, referring to the foals written about by Marguerite Henry. "What should we be doing with wild horses? Educating the public to be more appreciative. North America is where the horse evolved. It's the most adaptive animal on Earth. . . . I want to see a healthy herd of horses here a hundred years from now."

"The Assateague herd is a unique herd," agrees Mr. Rutberg of the Humane Society. "The value is that people love to see it. It's a great introduction to feral animals."

The herd has also provided Mr. Keiper, Mr. Kirkpatrick and others with an opportunity to study horses in the wild, something difficult to do in many cases. Out West, for example, the mustangs and other wild horses managed by the Bureau of Land Management range over such wide distances that observation is difficult.

The Assateague herd is confined in a relatively small space by natural barriers -- bays and the ocean -- and it has been intensively studied. Mr. Keiper's records allow scientists to determine the lineage and band (social group) of each horse.

"The book," as his loose-leaf binder with drawings of horses, family information and breeding record is called, is kept by the Park Service. Each month, an employee checks on every horse, jotting any relevant information in "the book."

"When I started, I was just looking for basic biological data, basic behavior patterns," says Mr. Keiper. But his efforts have borne much more fruit than the study of a single generation or group of animals: Now, researchers with "the book" can look back across four or five generations of Assateague ponies. "It's a long-term breeding record," Mr. Keiper says.

The long-term study of breeding behavior has brought Mr. Keiper and others to a criticism of the Chincoteague herd's management: Stripping the foals from the mothers every year means they breed again the next year, something they don't necessarily do in the wild.

"Foal factory -- that's what they're doing," Mr. Keiper says of the Chincoteague herd management. "Those horses breed every year. At the north end [the Maryland herd], they nurse for 18 months." Nursing will keep a horse from immediately breeding again, he says, giving the mare a chance to recover from the stresses of pregnancy, birth and nursing.

There's also another alteration of natural behavior as a result of the annual culling of the Chincoteague herd, he says. The foals lose playmates and the opportunity to practice behaviors they ,, will need as adult animals.

"Play behavior is practice behavior," he explains. Foals will fight lightly, practice mounting each other and grooming until they're ready to try the real thing, he says.

The Park Service does not administer medical care to the horses, other than the contraceptives and at one other time: when a horse is hit by a car, says Mr. Zimmerman. It's not a frequent event, but it does happen. The horse is either treated or put down, depending on the seriousness of the injuries.

"The horses very rarely get sick," Mr. Zimmerman says. The ills that befall them for the most part can be traced to people.

"People fail to respect that these are wild animals," he says. "I find it very ironic. People visit Assateague exclusively to see the horses. There's an opportunity to see the horses exhibit their natural behavior. Yet a lot of folks who visit the island try to interact with the horses as if they were barnyard animals . . . they feed them carrots and apples and Twinkies."

Finding a balance

Although some critics would like to see the Virginia auction end, that's not likely to happen. The swim and sale are part of Chincoteague lore, and provide needed revenues for the island and the Fire Department.

And everyone involved agrees that the ponies need to be limited in number to allow other parts of the Assateague wildlife to flourish on both sides of the fence. The grazing permit for the Chincoteague firefighters' herd limits it to 150 adult animals. The Park Service says it would like to reduce the Maryland herd from about 170 to 150 through contraception.

"The Maryland herd limit is based to a certain extent on population genetics and how many they need for a healthy herd," says Mr. Rutberg of the Humane Society.

"The other factor is how many ponies the island can handle without substantial damage." Ponies eat vegetation, and too many of them can erode the marsh grasses that support water birds and other island inhabitants.

Says Mr. Zimmerman, the resource management specialist at the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland: "There will always be horses here. What we're trying to do is find a balance. We're trying to balance the health of the horses and the health of

the island."

DAIL WILLIS covers the Eastern Shore for The Sun.

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