Chincoteague Pony Swim organizers say mare's death was 'tragic accident,' pushes back against PETA criticism

The death of a mare the day after this year’s Chicoteague Pony Swim has prompted a clash between animal rights group PETA and the fire company that organizes the popular annual event.

A spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co. said the pony’s death was accidental, and pushed back against PETA’s criticism of the event.

Butterfly Kisses was euthanized after slipping, falling and breaking her neck in a pen on carnival grounds, a day after the pony took part in the fire company’s 93rd annual swim, according to Denise P. Bowden, the spokeswoman for the fire company that manages the wild pony herd. The mare had made the swim without any injury, as she had done many times before, Bowden said. Butterfly Kisses lived on Assateague Island off the coast of the Delmarva peninsula, where she waiting to return at the time of the accident.

PETA, formally People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called on the fire company to halt the swims after the mare’s death, arguing that the swim and subsequent pony auction are stressful and frightening for the animals.

Bowden said PETA’s claims are baseless.

“While these ponies mean a great deal to the Fire Company, the town and the county financially, we are also human beings who see these gorgeous animals as the beautiful creatures they are and we handle them with the care and respect they deserve,” Bowden wrote Tuesday on the company’s Facebook page. “If we did not do this event, these animals would end up over populating, eat themselves out of house and home, suffer diseases and injuries without any help at all. These are the facts about how we do what we do.”

The swim raises money for the fire company, and helps control the wild pony population on Assateague Island, according to organizers. A group of wranglers known as Saltwater Cowboys herd the ponies across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague island at time when there is no current. The ponies end their swim in a marshland on Chincoteague, just south of the Maryland-Virginia border.

Some of the ponies that cross are auctioned off, with proceeds going to the fire company. Others, like Butterfly Kisses, are returned to Assateague.

Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA president, said in an open letter Tuesday to the fire company that it should fine “humane ways” to raise money for its “important work while managing the pony herd’s size.” If “Butterfly Kisses” wasn’t penned on the carnival grounds, she would still be alive, Newkirk said.

“This pony’s needless death is the latest proof that continuing to pen ponies and auction off their foals makes the Chincoteague fire department look increasingly backwards, reckless, and cruel,” Newkirk said. “PETA is calling on organizers to face up to the fact that times have changed and banish this sad spectacle to the history books before another pony is injured or dies.”

The fire company called the death of Butterfly Kisses a tragic accident.

“I am so sad to have to tell you all that ‘Butterfly Kisses’ tragically died this afternoon after a freak accident in the pen at the carnival grounds,” the company posted on its Facebook page on Thursday, a day after the swim. “‘Riptide’ was chasing her, as she was running she slipped, fell hard to the ground and slid into the fence breaking her neck. The vet and cowboys were right there within minutes. No chance of survival. She was euthanized and her body was taken back to Assateague where she was buried.”

Butterfly Kisses had a foal that was bought by a local family who owns other horses. The foal is being bottle-fed following its mother’s death.

This story was featured in The Sun's Alexa Flash Briefing on Aug. 1, 2018.

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