Chincoteague Defends Event, Practices After Horse’s Death

CHINCOTEAGUE — The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company this week staunchly defended the annual pony swim and its treatment of the wild horses after a national animal advocacy group called for an end to the historic annual event.

After one of the wild horses from the Virginia side of Assateague Island died in a tragic accident following the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim last week, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company (CVFC) to put an end to the nearly century-old tradition. The CVFC manages the herd of wild horses on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, providing veterinarian visits, vaccinations and other care throughout the year.

Each July, the wild horses on the Virginia side of Assateague swim across the channel separating Assateague from Chincoteague. Once on the opposite side, many of the younger horses are auctioned off to new owners in a carnival-like atmosphere.

After the swim, the wild horses that aren’t auctioned, or the majority of them, make the swim back to Assateague were they essentially live in the wild under the direction and care of the CVFC. It’s a tradition that dates to July 1925 and typically attracts as many as 40,000 visitors.

The annual swim and the associated auction is a means for the CVFC to manage the size of the herd of wild horses on the Virginia side of Assateague and serves as a fundraiser that allows the organization to care for the horses year-round. By comparison, the National Park Service manages the size of the herd of famed wild horses on the Maryland side of Assateague through a contraception program for the mares.

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After last week’s event, one of the mares from the Virginia side, Butterfly Kisses, was being held in a pen with other horses when she slipped in the pen and broke her neck. CVFC personnel and veterinarians on hand for the event were on the scene quickly, but there was little that could be done to save Butterfly Kisses and she was ultimately euthanized.

The horse’s death caused PETA to almost immediately call for an end to the annual pony swim and associated auction.

“This pony’s needless death is the latest proof that continuing to pen ponies and auction off their foals makes the Chincoteague fire department look increasingly backwards, reckless and cruel,” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said. “PETA is calling on organizers to face up to the fact times have changed and banish this sad spectacle to the history books before another pony is injured or dies.”

In a letter to the CVFC, Newkirk said Butterfly Kisses’ death was a direct result of the pony swim and subsequent auction.

“Butterfly Kisses’ death is more evidence that penning up wild ponies and auctioning off foals are reckless,” the letter reads. “Had she not been penned at the carnival grounds after the auction, she would still be alive. This it not the first time that a pony has dies at the fairgrounds or the first death that has been written off as an accident.”

However, the CVFC quickly responded to the allegations Butterfly Kisses broke her neck after being chased into the holding pen by another horse and denied the horse’s death was directly related to the annual event, instead characterizing it as a tragic accident. In a statement issued by CVFC Public Relations Officer Denise Bowden, the organization defended the handling of Butterfly Kisses and the other horses following the annual event.

“We are aware of the untruths that PETA has stated in their latest attempt to fool the general public about our pony penning events,” the statement reads. “They claim that one of our mares, Butterfly Kisses, was ‘chased’ into the pen. Nothing could be further from the truth. She was already in the pen and had been there for over 24 hours.”

In the statement, Bowden asserts the CVFC does much throughout the year to care for the wild horses on the Virginia side of Assateague and the pony swim and auction is a means to carefully manage the size of the herd.

“Once again, while these ponies mean a great deal to the fire company, the town and the county financially, we are also human beings who see these gorgeous animals as the beautiful creatures they are and we handle them with the care and respect they deserve,” the statement reads. “If we did not do this event, these animals would end up overpopulating, eating themselves out of house and home, suffer diseases and injuries without any help at all. These are the facts about how we do what we do.”

Bowden’s statement asserts the annual swim is entirely humane and safe.

“I truly believe that what the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company does is good, fair and caring,” the statement reads. “I have personally been involved going on 29 years. There are many others that have been involved longer than I have and many younger ones coming up through the ranks. Until you have been here and seen it with your own eyes, then we ask that you reserve judgment until you do. I have done my homework and ask that PETA does theirs.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.