For the second time in three years, the Humane Society of the United States is advocating abolition of a decades-old tradition on Chincoteague Island: the annual pony penning and sale sponsored by the island's Fire Department.
The swim and sale, nationally known because of the children's book "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry, are part of a monthlong carnival at the island fairgrounds that begins in early July. The ponies will swim from Assateague to Chincoteague tomorrow and the auction of the foals will be held Thursday.
"I was there last year," said Melissa Seide Rubin, an attorney who is also HSUS director for field services. "The swim, that's pretty uneventful as far as we're concerned. The worst part is the rest." Ms. Rubin and her organization said yesterday that they want the raffle, the auction and rides on wild ponies to end.
"That's not likely," countered Don Leonard, an island resident and a member of the Fire Department's Pony Committee. "The firemen have been involved with this since the '20s. It was a tradition with the residents, natives, back 100 years before that. . . . This is what's left of a tradition."
The Humane Society considers the sale, the handling of the ponies during the sale, the pony rides and the transport to the sold ponies' new homes stressful and cruel to the animals.
"In 1992, we came out in opposition. Not much was done," Ms. Seide said yesterday. "So we're trying again this year."
"We expect that," Mr. Leonard said of the Humane Society's opposition. "We're their favorite."
Mr. Leonard, who has been involved with the swim and sale since he was 12 years old (he's now 69) defended it on two grounds: One, he said, it is a tradition. Two, he said, the sale and swim are the main attraction of the carnival that is the main fund-raiser for the volunteer fire department.
The swim and sale raise some money for the Fire Department, he said: last year, about $65,000. Vet bills eat up $10,000 of that, he said, plus the cost of hay for the ponies during the winter.
"It may seem like a lot but it doesn't go very far when you're buying equipment," he said, citing a fire truck and an ambulance bought last year. Each cost well over $100,000, he said.
The Humane Society is specifically objecting to five conditions or events. They are:
* The raffling off of two foals, one of which is kept in a holding pen where the public can see and touch it until it is raffled. "There were lines and lines of people touching that poor frightened foal," said Ms. Rubin.
"The colt is in the back, and yes, people are looking at it," said Mr. Leonard. "We don't consider that a stressful situation. The colt is properly fed and watered."
* Wild pony rides on stallions and mares. The Humane Society says the animals are hit with sticks to make them buck.
"Hit with sticks? I doubt that," said Mr. Leonard. Pony rides are an American tradition, he said, citing similar rides out West. Most riders don't last 30 seconds on the pony at Chincoteague. "If there's any danger, it is not to the horse, but to the human."
* The Humane Society says that the animals sold at the auction are not always properly transported in accordance with Virginia law. Mr. Leonard -- who once took a foal on an extended trip in the back of his Cadillac just to prove it could be done -- said improper transport is a thing of the past.
"State law requires that we check [the transportation]," he said. "We check. State police check. Local police check. The American Horse Protection Association checks. The local humane society checks. Gosh, it's scrutinized to death."
* The holding pens for the foals are inadequate because they are unshaded and the foals don't get water, the Humane Society says -- a contention also disputed by Mr. Leonard.
"If the colt stays there for any length of time, they've got water," he said. "It's true, they're not shaded. They're accustomed to grazing in those meadows [on Assateague] with no shade."
* Older ponies are loaded by people not accustomed to dealing with such large animals, and who hit them with sticks to get them on the trailer, the Humane Society says. Mr. Leonard and others dispute this contention, saying that the ponies are not hit. "People are instructed not to hit them with anything," Mr. Leonard said.
"I've read reports that we whip them and beat them," said Lloyd Belton, a Richmond native who moved to Chincoteague in 1992 after years of attending the pony swim and sale. "It's no truth to it. They're not justified in their comments."
The Humane Society's objection did not surprise others who are involved in the sale or in the year-round pony management.
"Again?" said John Schroer, refuge manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, where the ponies are allowed to graze, upon being told of the society's opposition. "It's actually much better now. I wish the Humane Society would come out and say that."
Mr. Schroer said the fire department does a good job of caring for the ponies. They are required to do some things -- have a vet present when the herd is moved, for example. But they also make sure the herd gets shots, worming and hoof-trimming, he said.
"We're still planning to attend," said Robin Lohnes of the American Horse Protection Association, a national group that comes to the sale and gives new foal owners a starter packet with foal formula, food and medicine. "Our bottom line is that the foals auctioned off this year need to have a good nutritional start. Our bottom line is the animals. That's why we're handing out the foal packets."