I first read the book, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry when I was in 3rd grade. I tried for weeks to get the book from our school library, but it was always on loan. My mother finally bought it for me because I couldn’t wait any longer to read it. I loved reading about Phantom and her foal, Misty. The story was so moving and it’s stayed with me all these years. At the same time, as I’ve come to learn in my adult life the reality of the famous pony swim is not always a story children would want to hear.
Last week’s Chincoteague Pony Swim ended in tragedy, a not infrequent outcome of the nearly 100 years of this peculiar Delmarva Peninsula tradition. Butterfly Kisses, a mare being chased by a male pony named Riptide, fell hard to the ground and broke her neck on the fence of the pony pen at the Chincoteague Fairgrounds. Her death came during Pony Penning Week, which includes the Pony Swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, and has long been a fundraiser for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Marguerite Henry’s 1947 children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, idealized and brought world-wide attention to the event.
Since the recent tragedy, the fire company has been quick to deflect the criticism coming its way, suggesting alternately that these things happen, that this was a “freak accident,” that horses are fragile, and that skeptics “keep any negative comments for another day,” as “this has been overwhelming enough and we need to process this.”
Indeed, they do. Both the Pony Penning and the Pony Swim are anachronisms that have long compromised animal welfare and safety. The HSUS can say little in favor of the fundraiser or the claim that it supports a viable population management plan for the horses at Chincoteague and Assateague. We’ve monitored the event since the late 1960s, when it was the site of many disturbing practices, including fights between stallions, horses drowning, day-old foals separated from their mothers, animals being denied food and water, no veterinary presence, and unqualified bidders carrying away ponies without any supervision.
Ironically, a stone’s throw (or a pony’s swim) away, the National Park Service has proudly managed the twin Assateague Island wild pony herd for over 20 years using contraception to protect both its fragile island ecosystem and its precious horses. This program has been so successful that not one horse has been removed in recent years, while the ponies draw visitors from around the world.
While no one would quibble with the noble intent of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s goal of raising funds to support its work, it is time to stop romanticizing the negative consequences of this improper roundup of animals. Fire departments all over this country raise funds without harming animals and this community needs to consider how it can do the same before another animal loses his or her life. The HSUS stands ready to assist the Chincoteague community in developing a successful contraception program that will allow the descendants of Misty to live out their lives wild and free.