ASSATEAGUE — Less than a month after the National Park Service announced new regulations aimed at reducing dangerous interactions between visitors to Assateague and the wild horses, a food-aggressive stallion, known for raiding coolers and picnic tables, was sent to a horse rescue and adoption center in Texas for training.
Last month, National Seashore officials announced two new regulations aimed at preventing harmful interactions between Assateague’s famous horses and the visiting public. The new initiatives include a renewed effort to educate the public about the dangers of getting too close to the horses, along with a couple of new regulations intended to make sure the message gets across.
A little less than a month later, the message clearly didn’t get across to at least one of the Assateague’s wild horses, an 18-year-old stallion named Fabio, who had to be removed from the island after his bold attempts to steal food from visitors’ campsites, coolers and picnic tables deemed him too dangerous to roam free around the densely populated areas.
According to Assateague Superintendent Trish Kicklighter, although all of the horses are wild, some including the herd that lives nearly year-round in the developed areas around Bayberry Drive have become habituated to humans, and while the horses are far from tame, many have lost their natural fear of people.
“Visitors often mistake habituation for tameness, and that’s when the problems start,” she said. “Unfortunately, every year, some will learn the hard way by getting bitten or kicked, often severely.”
For Fabio, a harem stallion and alpha male in his herd, the lure of snacks fed to him by visitors over time caused him to boldly and aggressively saunter into camping and visitor areas seeking food.
“Most horses can be shooed away from food, but not dominant horses like Fabio, who make others wait for them to finish eating,” said Pepper Ballard of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the organization that arranged for the horse’s ultimate removal from Assateague. “In his band, he was top horse, and when people or other horses tried to shoo him away, he began to kick, bite and charge at them.”
Fabio’s aggressive behavior led to his removal from Assateague, although the trip to the rescue and adoption center in Texas is not being considered a punishment. The horse’s behavior was the inevitable result of continued interaction between the island’s natural inhabitants and their human visitors.
“It’s the typical reaction of a dominant horse telling others to wait for him, but we couldn’t risk the chance of someone being seriously injured and that’s why he had to be removed,” said Allison Turner, the biological technician at Assateague who arranged for Fabio’s transfer to the Texas sanctuary. “It’s not his fault at all.”
Turner said the HSUS was chosen to facilitate the transfer because the National Park Service had worked with the organization on wild horse-related issues in the past, most notably the ongoing contraceptive program aimed at naturally reducing the size of the herd.
“We figured we couldn’t go wrong with the Humane Society of the United States as long as they could take him,” she said. “We knew he would get the care and respect he needs.”
Fabio was taken to the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center where he is being evaluated on his people skills. According to Anne Rathbun-Favre, director of the Texas facililty, Fabio is being slowly indoctrinated into his new surroundings.
“We didn’t want to do too much too quickly with Fabio,” she said. “Our human-predator tendency is to want to move quickly, but Fabio, as a semi-wild horse, needed time to learn to trust these new humans and this new environment.”
Rathbun-Favre said Fabio has been receptive to his new surroundings for the most part, although the circumstances that led to his removal are being utilized in his training.
“Alone for probably the first time in his life, and stallions are very social, he has been quite needy of human contact, which makes training very easy,” she said. “He’s highly food-motivated, so cookies are used to socialize him initially.”
The goal for Fabio is to train him to the point he could be adopted. While he appears to be embracing the training, the next step is to turn him out with the herd at the Texas facility.
“We are anxious to see how he adjusts to new herds, given his age, previous training and newly gelded state,” she said. “We think he would be wonderful with an adoptive family, assuming he continues to be a good boy and does not get stallion-like when turned out into a bigger herd.”
Meanwhile, Assateague officials are reminding visitors of the two new regulations implemented last month. The first prohibits approaching or remaining within 10 feet of any horse on the barrier island. The second requires campers and other visitors to properly secure food and food-related refuse including hard-sided, lockable storage bins or coolers.