A few days before Chama Wingapo — a 7-year-old mare that was part of the wild pony herds of Assateague — was found dead without visible injuries in one of the Assateague Island National Seashore’s campgrounds, rangers noticed her odd behavior and attributed it to the usual cause: human involvement.
At first, the suspected culprit was a plastic grocery bag, which, when eaten by a horse can tangle with the other matter in the horse’s intestinal tract and cause a condition called colic. Colic in horses is similar to a bad case of cramps, except it can be fatal.
Speaking to the issue of plastic bags found in horses a couple years ago, Kelly Taylor, interpretation and education supervisor for the park, explained that horses can’t vomit and don’t even really burp, so anything that enters a horse is on a one-way street.
But it wasn’t a plastic bag that caused the pony’s illness, though those do continue to cause animals and park staff trouble. Chama Wingapo had eaten a lot of dog food, and it impacted her bowels, ruptured her intestine and killed her.
Liz Davis, education and interpretation chief at the National Seashore, said most dog food contains corn, soybean and animal products with a very high carbohydrate, protein and fat content. That recipe is too rich, she said, and in large amounts is deadly for an Assateague wild pony, whose natural diet consists of low-nutrient, high-fiber saltmarsh and beach grasses.
Davis said the horse ate a lot of dog food — more than a single cup or bowl would hold. She said the amount found was probably a bag’s worth. She said campers with large dogs were present around the time Chama Wingapo started displaying symptoms.
“While the dog food may not have been given directly to the horse, the dog food was not properly stored away from the horses and other wildlife. All food, including your pet’s food, must be properly stored. This tragic incident could have been prevented by simply storing pet food in a vehicle,” Davis said.
“Everyone kind of knows what a horse is. They have the image of the kid holding a sugar cube or an apple, and expect a similar encounter — but these are wild animals. You wouldn’t behave this way with a bear. You wouldn’t behave this way with a moose,” Taylor said.
The ponies know how to defend themselves and can identify potential food sources, Taylor said, which a number of visitors discover each year when they are bitten, kicked or chased.
The ponies, having already identified people as sources of food that seems perhaps more palatable than the salt-laden grasses they subsist on, learn. What they learn is people are often extraneous to the transaction.
Like bears, they will raid camps. They will raid coolers. They will raid picnics, cars or basically any source of food they think they can get into — even food secured in coolers under picnic tables isn’t safe.
And it can kill them.
The park has been working for years on a solution, from developing “horse boxes,” which are much like containers offered at campsites in bear country, to stationing interns as a pony patrol — ensuring visitors don’t misbehave and mistreat the animals at the same time.
No one solution seems to be enough, and as soon as an answer is found, either the humans or the horses change the rules.
The ponies either figure out something new, such as how to open coolers or the people do, such as disabling protections on water spigots for human use to provide water for horses.
“It’s not getting better,” Davis said. “We invest time and effort in the horse/person interactions, but we still need people to help us out.”
Davis suggests the following precautions:
• Horses can open snap-on lids and latches. Coolers and containers stored under picnic tables are not secure from horses and wildlife. Secure all coolers with a nylon strap to prevent wildlife from opening them.
• Secure all tote or beach bags with a zippered closure. Horses can easily access open totes and bags.
• Store all unattended food in a vehicle.
• Store all pet food in a vehicle. Do not leave a pet’s food and water bowls unattended. Horses, like pets, are opportunists and will take advantage of a free meal.
• Keep food stored if horses are in the immediate vicinity. Wait until they have moved on before beginning a meal.
• Dispose of trash immediately in trash receptacles. The smell from food wrappers will attract horses and other wildlife, and, if ingested, could cause death.