A death at Chincoteague—once again

By on July 31, 2018 with 18 Comments

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.

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18 Comments

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  1. Michle OBrien says:

    It’s not the first time that there has been a problem and a pony has met its death in this event. Perhaps it is time that this “tradition” was ended. Since the National Park Service has managed the twin Assateague Island wild pony herd for over 20 years using contraception so that the pony population is under control, than perhaps the same could be done in this situation and the fire department could find other ways to raise money.

    I will say this….from the attitude of this fire department it would take a really huge outcry to make them end this archaic “tradition”.

    Thanks.

  2. Cathy Mysak says:

    We have been to Chincoteague and the surrounding area. Noted, the the fire department does not what to share in the unfortunate tun of events. Nonetheless, they are responsible and need to take measures that protect and ensure the safety of animals in the “care”. Anything less is neglectful behavior. They are aware at this point that the methods used are not safe. It is time to make a change.
    Many animal policy and safety issues have evolved from what seemed like good intentions and ended in tragedy for the animals and people involved.
    Chincoteague as a community should put their collective heads together, seek information and assistance if needed and safeguard one of their best valuable assets, their wildlife.

  3. Michele Ornelas says:

    Mrs. Block,
    I’m curious to know exactly how many swims/pennings you have personally attended? Have you ever actually lived on Chincoteague Island? I personally have been to over 25 swims, and raised my children there for almost 11 years. I have seen the care given to the ponies year round vs only seeing it for maybe a week like most visitors do. If you truly understood the swim/auction then you too wouldn’t be so inclined to ridicule or condemn those that actually care for these horses.

    • Julia Ladoski says:

      I agree! This lady has no idea what she is talking about. These ponies are well cared for, the vets are there almost 24/7, and the firemen are out there every few hours during carnival to make sure there’s enough hay and water- they are the center of the island’s economy. Mare and foal separation is going to happen, there is no way to prevent this. And what’s more, stallions fight no matter what herd they belong to, no matter where they are. It’s part of who they are, not a disturbing practice. There is already a contraceptive program in place, a mare can only have two foals, then a park ranger will administer contraceptive via dart in the spring. The CVFC does a background check on the winning bidders, and if the buyer is not qualified, he goes to the next bidder, or back to Assateague. I have attended every swim for most of my life, and the ponies are in the firemen’s best interest. They did not want Butterfly to die, she slid on pine needles while running with her mate, Riptide. Just to clarify, the death is at nobody’s fault. I was there when the incident happened, and it was a freak accident. One second she was happily running, the next, she was on the ground. And Riptide seemed to by crying over her the moment she died. This is sad, but not at fault of the Teaguers. Stop spreading these lies and propaganda, and move on! The author has obviously never personally visited Chincoteague and witnessed the kindness that lives on the island and with the ponies.

  4. Susan Johnstonbaugh says:

    The Maryland ponies have recently lost several ponies. One stallion was hit and killed by a car and at least 2 in the last year have colicked, one from eating dog food from a campsite. Colick is an incredibly painful way to die. Maryland ponies are fed by campers even though there are Do Not Feed The Ponies signs.
    You might want to do some research.
    Animals die in the wild. Butterfly Kisses could have slipped and broken a leg out in the marsh and no one would have known. She slipped on hay and hit a fence. No ones fault. It was a tragic accident, and Riptide actually nuzzled her after she went down.
    The CVFD vet gave her a sedative and her buyback donors were allowed to say a few words to her. I don’t know of a kinder group of people than the men and women who work year round for these ponies.

  5. Tara says:

    I’d love to know how many pony swims alot of the people spreading hate toward the event have actually been to. How many times they’ve paid attention to the vet care the ponies get while rounded up. Or if they even realize the foals are NOT separated from the mares unless they are old enough to be. If they aren’t old enough they leave in the fall. Nobody picks up the horses without them being cleared. I don’t know where everyone gets their information but it’s false. Also not only does the fire Dept get the horses vet care YEAR ROUND they also make sure they have fresh water and hay available because nature can be unpredictable and who knows if the ponds are empty or not. All of these misinformed people need to come for more than a week and see what is really done.

  6. Bob Berry says:

    Dear Kitty, ironic the president of the humane society has an animals first name. So a foal that they were trying to keep an extra close eye on got tangled in some brush and died, tragic, not neglegent. Also, this mare fell and was almost instantly put down. Had this happened in the wild, she would have suffered tremendously. There was also a pony this winter that got stuck in the marsh on Assateague and the fire company went over and spent hours trying to save it and it was unsuccessful. These things do happen sadly. No pony has ever died during the actual swim and they often make the swim over on their own throughout the year. So on behalf of the people of Chincoteague we would like to politely ask you to eat a bag of di#ks. That is all, carry on.

  7. Tammy S says:

    I can’t help but wonder upon reading this if you yourself have ever been to Assateague or done any real research before using the platform the humane society has given you to disparage the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company’s management of the VA based ponies.

    I recently went to Assateague for the first time. I was shocked by what I saw in Maryland where the wild pony herd is so proudly managed as you mentioned. There are ponies EVERYWHERE in parking lots, on roads, at the showers for the beaches. A little googling allowed me to quickly see that allowing these ponies free access to the entire island has resulted in a lot of unnecessary deaths. Since 1982 48 ponies have been hit by cars on the MD side of Assateague with 31 of those ponies dying (that’s almost a death a year). That includes a death in 2016 and 2017. Another pony died in 2017 after eating dog food. Where is the outrage of this?

    I also saw a pony in MD with a horribly overgrown hoof had curled up on itself. This can not have been pleasant for the poor horse and could have easily been fixed, but the MD side does not provide any care for the horses outside of the sterilization and euthanasia when necessary. Now you can say these are wild horses and should be left to be wild but one can argue that being descendants of domesticated animals they are more feral than wild (indeed Przewalski’s horse is considered the only true “wild” horse). As someone involved in the cat rescue world there I know it is considered a good thing to trap feral cats to provide them with basic veterinary care and to allow their offspring to be adopted out for pets.

    Which brings us to the VA side of Assateague. It is a very different experience. You see very few ponies when visiting and only from a distance unless you go on boat tours or the bus tour run by the park. That is because they keep their ponies in two large fenced off areas away from the people and their cars. I could not find a single news article on a VA pony being hit by a car. Also while the big July roundup with the swim gets all the press there are actually 3 roundups during the year. Those roundups are done so every pony can get examined by a vet, dewormed, have their hoofs checked, and vaccinated. The ponies are all microchipped so their medical records can be recorded. Additionally, if a sick pony is noticed outside those roundups it will be given vet care.

    Now let’s talk the swim itself. You mention that tragedy is not infrequent but I could find only two incidents of a death somehow correlated to the roundup and swim in recent years. The most recent one and an incident in 2015. Neither death occurred because of the swim itself but rather freak accidents while in the coral on the fairgrounds. Now back in the day things were different as you mentioned. However, what you failed to mention were the changes that have been made through the years to assure the welfare of the animals during the pony swim. All animals are vet checked before making the swim. If the vet says a pony doesn’t swim it doesn’t swim. None of the young foals or pregnant mares make the swim. A vet is also present during the swim monitoring the horses. There is plentiful food and water provided in the corrals. A vet decides when the foals that are sold are old enough to leave their moms and go to their new owners. Trailers that are taking the horses home need to be approved.

    Now I’m not saying everything that happens related to the pony swim is perfect. I do hope that the Chincoteague volunteer fire company will look at what happened this year and think about whether there are changes that can be made to prevent something like that from happening again. However, I feel that through the years it is clear that they have put a lot of thought and effort into how to best provide for the ponies on the VA side of Assateague and how to make the roundup and swim as safe as possible. I am disappointed to see that instead of praising them for those efforts you use one freak accident to disparage them for sins of their past while simultaneously praising the MD side which appears to be doing very little about the considerably more frequent human-related pony deaths.

    • Ferrell says:

      You’re very right about some aspects of what you claim.
      However, Ninka, the horse with laminitis in the Maryland herd has a genetic condition that has caused her overgrown hooves, or “elf feet”. If this was a condition that bothered her, or other horses on the island with it, they would not have survived as long as they have. Ninja is almost 30. If it were a condition that bothered her, she would have displayed signs of distress a long time ago.

      • Tammy S says:

        Thank you for the information on Ninka. I saw one of the other horses with the condition not her (the horse I saw was bay). However, I researched it more based on your reply (whihch is how I found out Ninka was not bay) and did read that the horses that have the elfin feet do seem to have normal lifespans, and maintain their weight and look otherwise healthy.

  8. Rozalie Palan says:

    As a supporter of the National Park Service and the Humane Society for many years, I am astonished that neither organization has been able to end this stupidity for 40+ YEARS! What have you been doing? The fire department should bake some cakes and cookies to raise money. I’ve been to Chincoleague and love it , and was unaware of the danger to these lovely creatures. Shame on all of you!

  9. CW says:

    Kitty,

    You are quick to pass judgement without having done your homework. The loss of Butterfly Kisses during the recent pony penning week (which I attended) was truly was a “freak accident” as the fire company post said. I know of a similar accident that happened to a lovely quarter-horse mare in a friend’s 50 acre pasture – she was running, slipped, slid into (and was impaled by) a fence. Will you now call for the cessation of keeping all domesticated horses because of the loss of my friend’s mare? Or will you call for keeping all domesticated horses indoors all the time, and bubble wrapped, to reduce the possibility of injury? The island community is deeply mourning the loss of this beloved pony, who was promptly and HUMANELY euthanized to prevent her from suffering. Your harsh knee-jerk judgement, twisting of facts, and outright lies (or negligent reporting of unconfirmed “events”) is a prime example of cruelty to fellow humans who are already devastated by this accident. Shame on you.

    I (and other hikers) have noted ponies in the wild on Virginia end of Assateague with naturally occurring injuries, or that were in some kind of trouble (stuck in the mud, etc), and I personally have repeatedly seen the fire company respond promptly to attend to and/or rescue these ponies when they are in need. Also there is a regular regiment of pony enthusiasts who hike EVERY DAY to check on them, who communicate regularly with other enthusiasts and with the fire company, and who keep detailed records in addition to the records maintained by the fire company’s veterinarian (who attends to each pony at least 3 times a year for routine examinations and treatments, and as needed for illness or injury).

    And as for the pony swim itself, I challenge you to elaborate on the “drownings” you reported to have occurred as a result of the annual swim. When did these pony-swim related “drownings” occur – dates and evidence please? I don’t expect a response from you on this point because there have not been any event related equine drownings (As safety measures, the very young, old, or infirm ponies don’t make “the swim” and are trailered to the carnival grounds, and the Saltwater Cowboys travel across the channel in boats on both sides of the swimming ponies). Over the decades, some wild ponies (on both the Maryland and Virginia parts of Assateague) have drowned while in the wild during violent storms, but not as a result of a pony swim event. VOLUNTARY swimming is pleasant part of their daily lives, and rare drownings during storms is part of the harsh realties that all barrier island inhabitants are subject to (though when large storms approach, the fire company opens the gates to all of the protective compounds, and the wise older ponies lead the others to high ground). The ponies often take to the water (foals included) to cool off, escape the bugs, to swim to other areas of Assateague, and they have even been known to swim across to Chincoteague on their own (see Youtube video “WILD Chincoteague ponies invade campground”). The foals routinely play in the water, and have even been observed playing with their own reflections on the water’s surface.

    The one point you have made that is partially valid relates to some of the practices during the 1960s (ponies being transported in all manners of vehicles, etc). However, for you to report things that occurred over 50 years ago as though they are still occurring is irresponsible journalism at best, and is (at worst) hyping circumstances that no longer exist in order to get more support (donations) for your organization (of which I am sure you are a PAID staff member). Come to think of it, as I see it, you aren’t interested so much in protecting ponies as you are in providing your own job-security by playing on the emotions of animal lovers through gross misrepresentation of the pony swim.

    Here’s how it’s done today … the fire company reserves the right to refuse to sell a pony to any individual regardless of whether or not they win the bid, and they require veterinary approval (and proper equipment) for transporting the ponies away from the auction. Not surprisingly, many of the foals that go to auction are purchased by people who are known personally in the local (and extended social media) community. Additionally, the Chincoteague pony enthusiasts have an extensive and well-connected social network that tracks the majority of the purchased ponies throughout their lives (believe me … these enthusiasts can identify the foals by name, tell you who the sire and dam are, and many times will tell you their birthdays and stories about their early days in the wild on Assateague). Many of the people who purchase these ponies proudly “register” them in Facebook “Class of (date)” groups, and share how they are doing throughout their lives. And, the pony enthusiast community steps in to support any pony that finds himself/herself in need of rescue (see Chincoteague Pony Rescue in Ridgely, Maryland). I would argue that these Chincoteague ponies have a better chance of being monitored throughout their lives, and are less at risk for mistreatment, than horses who are routinely purchased from breeding farms and private individuals and get passed around throughout their lives with no one watching over them.

    I have throughout my life supported the Humane Society, but you missed the mark on this one, and have caused damage to the integrity of your once-trusted and well-respected organization. Please, invest your resources in protecting the wild mustangs out west, who are subject to real cruelty and mistreatment by our government, and don’t chime in on the Chincoteague ponies again until you know what you are talking about.

  10. The Chincoteaguers says:

    Odd that you say the National Park Service on the MD side has “proudly” managed their heard but they have a profoundly larger number of deaths than the VA side.

    Get your facts straight before you start spewing off misinformation to your readers. This is nothing more than an emotional, knee jerk reaction to a sad but freak accident.

    You should be ashamed to put your name on this article. Yellow journalism at its finest.

  11. Toni Cox says:

    It outrages me that a “leader” of HSUS, a worldwide animal rescue can publish statements so blatantly false that it rises to the level of irresponsibility. For the “head” of an organization, trusted by millions of loyal members who have no idea how little goes to actual animal care, and how much goes to your salary, to print outrageously false statements about an event that clearly you have never researched or attended is a breach of trust.
    The death of Butterfly Kisses at the carnival grounds was indeed a tragedy. Riptide had just covered BK and was not “chasing” her. She was quickly moving away from him which is normal after mating. She was running and slipped on hay which had been rained on, she fell and slid into the fence of the enclosure, breaking her neck. Riptide’s reaction was to go over to her and nuzzle her and try to get her up. They had a very close bond. The Veterinarian, which you claim is not present at the swim, immediately went to her to sedate and humanely euthanize her, and her buyback sponsors, from years ago, were able to say goodbye before the Fire Department crew transported her body to the marsh where she had lived, and given a respectful burial.
    Yes, it was a tragedy. But so are the deaths on the Maryland side. Several have been killed by vehicle hits, and last year a pony died in agony after eating a bag of dog food not responsibly secured by the human camper. The contraception program you portray so positively does not include any veterinary care. The Virginia ponies, however, are rounded up several times per year by the Fire Department Saltwater Cowboys, and given individual observation by the veterinarian. They are vaccinated and any ponies that are observed to have any foot injuries (common in the marsh) are brought to the carnival grounds to be treated by the veterinarian you claim is not around, and allowed to recover before being transported back to the his/her band in the marsh.
    Prior to the swim, the ponies are again rounded up, and again checked by the veterinarian. He decides who is too young, not fit enough or pregnant. Those ponies are transported to the carnival grounds and do not participate in the swim.
    During the swim, which takes place at “slack tide” no ponies have drowned. They frequently swim in the ocean on their own, to get relief from the mosquitos and flies so they are already adept at swimming. The Saltwater Cowboys ride on a barge along side the swimmers, and are alert and ready to assist any pony. If a pony decides not to swim, no one forces them. If the non swimmer is an adoptable foal, he/she is later transported to the carnival grounds. The veterinarian
    IS present during the swim, and checks the ponies several times during the event. He decided which foals can be transported and which foals must stay with their mothers until October, when the owners come back to pick them up. The trailers are inspected and the new owners are vetted to be sure they are prepared to raise a unique breed of pony. The Fire Department reserves the right to refuse transfer of any pony if they believe the owners are not prepared and that policy is posted on the auction podium.
    During the year, groups of special people, mostly photographers, hike or kayak DAILY to report on new foals and the condition of the various bands. Any injuries or signs of illness are reported to the Fire Department who IMMEDIATELY go into the marsh to observe and remove the affected pony to the carnival grounds for veterinary care.
    Unlike you, I have been to the swims, roundups and auctions. I have educated myself by observing, conversing, and being involved with the network of pony lovers on Chincoteague. I have also been to the Maryland side and observed people hitting and yelling at the ponies because they get into their picnic baskets. I challenge you to do more research before spouting off untruths meant to upset people who have never been involved with the ponies, and blindly believe whatever you write.

  12. Lois Szymanski says:

    Clearly, the writer of this blog has not been to Pony Penning and hasn’t got a clue what she is talking about. She is taking the word of PETA – an organization responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths. As someone who has followed the Chincoteague Ponies for over 30 years I can tell you that there is seldom any kind of accident at Pony Penning, and no ponies have ever drowned in the swim. The fire company rounds this wild herd up three times a year for shots, worming and health care. The older mares, pregnant mares, or any pony with any kind of ailment goes by trailer and does not make the swim – even though they will be seen swimming on their own, right after pony penning ends. Yes, they DO swim frequently on their own. Search YouTube and you will find dozens of videos of ponies swimming across on their own – just for an adventure. Whenever a pony is found in trouble and the fire company is called they are there right away to check on ponies. They have pulled them out of mud many times and brought back to their grounds for health care. They spend over $10,000 on shots and care at any given spring round up and have spent thousands of dollars saving ponies who have been found in the wild with injuries incurred on their own. The ponies are also fenced away from traffic. You tout the Maryland side of Assateague without mentioning how many ponies are hit by cars annually (or shot by hunters) on the Maryland side. Not one of those incidents have happened to the Chincoteague Ponies on the Virginia side. I was there when the “accident” happened this year and I loved the pony we lost. But it truly was an accident. Yes, they do happen. The mare – who was in heat – was trotting when she slipped and fell. Before you write about something, please take time to do your research – instead of taking the word of a group as disgusting as PETA. Get a clue, then write. This is the best managed herd of wild ponies in the United States. Your time would be better spent going after the thousands of auction barns where misfit ponies (and even very fit ponies) end up being bid on by meat buyers. When those meat buyers are outbid, the auction barn refuses the bids of good buyers and then offers the pony up for “Ransom,” to “save them from the kill buyers” with ridiculous amounts asked – and if not paid by a specific date this horse will go to the kill dealer. Yes, go after those horrible operations and leave the fire company alone, because they actually CARE about the wild ponies they own.

  13. Ferrell says:

    What is the point of this article?
    The swim will never be stopped.
    Both the National Park Service and CVFD could make changes in herd management that would benefit the horses and ponies.
    But what is HSUS doing about it other than writing an article for sensationalism.
    Have you actually been to the swim?
    Have you spoken with CVFD about their management plan? Have you ever hiked the dunes on the Maryland side to actually see how these horses live?
    Have you suggested a grant to cover PZP in Chincoteague? What has HSUS actually done to help these situations for both the Maryland and Virginia herds to be better managed?
    Nothing.
    Talk to me when you want to take action. Until then you’re no better than PETA and I’m very disappointed in HSUS.

  14. Dana Burton says:

    There were 20ish horses in horrid conditions in Wicomico County that needed rescued earlier this year. Before penning.
    Several lay dead among the suffering.
    They never had quality of care. Food? What food!
    These horses on Assateague got far better care and had far better lives than those horses in Wicomico.
    There is also a marsh cancer working its way through the herd. Yes. A marsh cancer. There are veterinarians and technitions doing all they know how to do to find and contain the cause of this nasty disease that will do more to descimate the Assateage herd than the random as hell events you have addressed here.
    Wild horses act up!! They are not cuddly sweet loves with a need to please peiple. Oh hell no. They are hard tough animals that will kick your scrawny ass.
    Riptide is a mustang. Not cute barn bred. He unwittingly took her out of the gene pool for better or worse.
    These animals are not just rounded up once a year. It happens 4 times a year. Likely more with the cancer. Vet exams and innoculations are metered out as needed.
    Do I like everything I see and hear out of their spokesperson. No. No I don’t, but I do know without question that not one person who handles that herd wants any harm to come to any of those animals. Nobody! Not one person on that island wants anything to happen to any of them. They are our treasure. Yes. I said ours. I happen to live in the mainland. I was there today. The babies are safe wintering at the fairgrounds. Thriving. Growing. Getting fat and being given the best shot at year 2 when they join the herd in spring.
    If you want to pick on somebody doing real harm, turn your sights on that idiot in Wicomico. Look for the people who bought Chintoteagu ponies only to dump them in a kill pen when shit got real. Look for rescue organizations that work to keep these horses out of those pens, and look for opportunities to do more good than harm in their regard.
    You don’t know this herd as well as you think you do. You sure as hell don’t know Teagers.

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