ASSATEAGUE – With the advent of another summer season at Assateague, National Parks officials are gearing up for another battle with tourists over their irresistible urge to interact with the local wild pony population on the barrier island.
Assateague Island National Seashore officials this week put out a call for volunteers for the 2009 Pony Patrol, a band of volunteers that assist Park Service rangers each summer with getting the word out about the dangers of touching, petting, feeding or otherwise interacting with the native wild horse population, not to mention the illegality of the actions. Visitors to the island can often be seen feeding the ponies through car window or stopping and getting out of their vehicles to pet them, but park officials frown on the activity and rely on the Pony Patrol volunteers to help them get the word out.
In most cases, human interaction with the wild ponies ends with a happy memory or a treasured photograph, but there are often times when the illegal activity ends with a wild horse biting or kicking an admirer or, in some cases, the ponies being struck by vehicles trying to get close. The volunteer Pony Patrol’s mission is to help avoid the not-so-happy endings.
“Since 1991, Pony Patrol members have provided invaluable assistance to the National Seashore in carrying out its mission to protect both wildlife and visitors,” said recently installed Superintendent Trish Kicklighter.
Assateague National Seashore volunteer program manager Regina Jones-Brake said this week as the crowds increase on the island and the wild ponies become more comfortable with their sudden guests, the inevitable interactions often create problems. Uninitiated visitors often believe the ponies are part of the visitor experience, which they are to a large extent, but physically interacting with them remains off limits.
“When visitors often see the horses, they don’t think they’re wild,” she said. “They want to get out of their cars and touch them and pet them, or feed them junk through their car windows, but they have to remember these are wild animals.”
Jones-Brake said the public is given ample warning about the dangers of touching or feeding the ponies, but the warnings are often not heeded when visitors get out into the park and first encounter the horses.
“We give them plenty of literature about the dangers of interacting with the ponies and there are signs posted everywhere, but in their enjoyment of the park and the horses, they seem to forget all of that or just disregard it,” she said. “It’s a constant battle.”
The Pony Patrol is often on the front lines of that battle. The volunteers contact visitors involved in the unsafe and illegal practice of feeding and petting horses along Assateague Island’s roads in an effort to help them enjoy the ponies safely and in an appropriate way. The focus is on education, with the goal of minimizing petting and feeding incidents to maintain the wild nature of the ponies while enhancing visitor enjoyment of the animals.
Those interested in volunteering for the Pony Patrol should have good people skills and enjoy interacting with the public. The volunteers are trained on horse behavior, the problems associated with human/horse interactions and how to safely deal with the animals.
Jones-Brake said one of the frequent problems encountered by Pony Patrol volunteers is the traffic tie-ups the interactions cause on busy summer days.
“One of the reasons we have the Pony Patrol is to stop what we call pony jams,” she said. “The visitors come across some ponies by the side of the road and stop to take photos, which is fine, but they get out of their cars and position their children in dangerous positions with the ponies for photos and it creates mini-traffic jams because in most places, the roads are only wide enough for one car in each direction.”
The patrols are conducted on paved roads by bicycle, so a certain level of physical fitness is required. The patrols are often conducted in the heat of the summer in four-hour shifts, either from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. In most cases, one four-hour shift per week is required of the volunteers.
The deadline for submitting applications for the 2009 Pony Patrol is Friday, May 29. Adults interested in applying are invited to contact Jones-Brake at 410-629-6061.