'Misty'-eyed musings on animal welfare and the Chincoteague pony swim
Off the Virginia and Maryland coast within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge there’s a barrier island called Assateague that teems with feral horses.
Every year the Chincoteague Fire Department holds an annual fundraiser. It rounds up a bunch of so-called “Chincoteague ponies” and swims them across the waters between the Assateague and Chincoteague islands so the weanlings can be sold in a “Pony Penning and Auction” event on Chincoteague.
This swim has reportedly been a tradition since the 1700’s (and the “Pony Penning” and auction is an 82 year-old annual event), but the horses have supposedly been there since the 1600’s when they were likely turned loose by local settlers.
Sixty years ago, Marguerite Henry wrote a classic tale of one of these horses, cementing a spunky mare named “Misty of Chincoteague” in the minds of young readers (and future veterinarians) everywhere.
When I read her story in the ‘70’s I decided I needed a pony just like Misty. I begged my parents to drive me to Virginia, pay the $200 (it’s now $1500) and let me take one of these wild horses home.
I’ll bet I wasn’t the only girl with such ambitions. I’ll also bet my parents weren’t the only ones who wished they’d never bought their nine year-old that book.
I hadn’t had much cause to think about my “Misty”-eyed dreams in these intervening decades. Occasionally I’d be reminded of the swim when the media reported on the spectacle. But otherwise its existence has barely registered since the Breyer’s version of my plastic Misty was surrendered to storage in the late ‘80’s.
The November 1st edition of the JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association), however, gets credit for triggering new thoughts on the subject…as does my boyfriend for raising the issue over dinner last night.
It seems Misty’s kin are in the veterinary news because one of our profession’s own is responsible for saving some of the 150 horses driven to swim the 400 yards across the channel each July.
His name is Dr. Charles Cameron and his services were recruited in 1990 after some horses died of unknown causes during the swim. His job ever since has been to manage the herd on Assateague with “deworming…vaccination…and [improving] conception rates and overall health.” Annually, he also helps those who appear to be having trouble making the swim to Chincoteague.
Because the older foals on Assateague are the target of this yearly drive (about 70 are sold each year), weanlings and their mothers are often the ones making the swim.
After the auction, most mares (and the occasional interloping stallions) are swum back to their home on Assateague (two days later). Mares whose babes are 3 months or younger are kept on Chincoteague until their babies are weaned in the Fall.
The drive helps keep the herd to a manageable, island-acceptable population size while bringing money into the local municipality through auction and tourism (40,000 people attend the event each year).
Now, 400 yards may not seem like a lot to you but it took me about a month of daily swimming to train myself to complete this quarter mile without exhausting myself—in a pool. Imagine a 1,000 pound animal who’s seldom (if ever) swum before completing this swim. How about her 3 month-old foal?
Perhaps because I’ve always harbored romantic childhood visions of the “pony swim,” I don’t remember ever pondering the animal welfare implications of such forced exercise.
But this JAVMA article, in its description of our colleague’s exploits, made plain the risks involved in corralling and swimming these horses:
Mares just transitioning into weaning their younglings are especially susceptible to a life-threatening hypocalcemia—an electrolyte imbalance that makes their muscles “seize up.”
These mares have been the casualties observed in years past. And their foals, easily confused by the unexpected swim, are also likely to become disoriented and attempt to swim back. Boats that accompany the swimmers have had to rescue mares, presumably by injecting them with calcium mid-swim. Confused foals have been hoisted from the water to board the boats.
“I’d like to see video footage of how that’s done,” is what my boyfriend had to say—after reading the same article I’d originally dismissed as more PR for a romantic event I once yearned to experience for myself.
A less nostalgically-inclined viewpoint was apparently necessary for me to register this Chincoteague swim as incredibly stressful to the horses.
In fact, I now can’t help but wonder: Is the introduction of modern medicine into a feral herd always a good thing? Is boosting conception rates in this case a benefit? Can a planned, forced swim ever be justified? Is Misty’s tale a media-spun riff on animal cruelty?
I’m sure I know the PETA POV…but what about yours?