BERLIN – Park officials removed an aggressive stallion from Assateague Island National Seashore Monday for relocation to Texas.
Delegate’s Pride, also known as Chip (N6ELS-H), was removed from Assateague May 2 and will be permanently relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Texas. Officials said the highly food conditioned and aggressive stallion had been involved in more than half of the incidents resulting in injuries to visitors since 2017.
“We do not take these decisions lightly, but occasionally it is necessary for the safety of visitors and staff,” a statement from Assateague Island National Seashore reads.
Monday morning, shortly after some visitors saw Delegate’s Pride being rounded up, the park issued a news release advising the public of the stallion’s relocation. Officials reported that the stallion had become increasingly aggressive toward visitors and staff when pursuing human food. He was also aggressive when park staff attempted to redirect him and his band away from crowded visitor areas.
“He is also extremely resistant to non-contact methods used by park staff to move horses out of potentially dangerous situations—totally ignoring actions which cause other horses to move,” the statement reads.
Officials said that certain horses in the park continued to associate humans with food rewards. Habituated or unafraid horses become food conditioned when they get food from visitors—those who feed them intentionally and those who don’t store their food properly.
“Unfortunately, reversing behavior once a wild animal has learned to associate people with food is extremely difficult,” the park’s statement reads. “Removal often becomes the only option to manage a highly food conditioned animal, especially one causing the majority of negative and dangerous interactions with the public.”
The park is expected to release updated food storage regulations this spring. Campers can only store food in a vehicle or in a strapped-in cooler placed inside the food storage box provided by the National Park Service under picnic tables. Since 2019, all of the park’s tables have been specifically designed with horse-proof food storage compartments.
“All visitors need to take this food storage issue seriously and help us reduce the frequency of inappropriate interactions with the wild horses,” said Hugh Hawthorne, the park’s superintendent. “The free roaming nature of the Assateague horses is what makes them so unique and special, but there are also issues like this that need to be addressed.”
The news of the departure of Delegate’s Pride frustrated and upset many regular park visitors. They’re saddened to see a 13-year-old horse who’s spent his entire life on Assateague be shipped halfway across the country because of behavior issues created by the park’s visitors. Goldy Austen, who has photographed Delegate’s Pride numerous times, hates to see what she considered a beautiful stallion labeled as aggressive in the press and abruptly removed from the park. She noted that he was rounded up just as the mare in his band was about to foal.
“The reason he was ripped away from his band was because he protected his family and had become aggressive with food sources he had been conditioned to consider by ignorant and disrespectful visitors to his environment over the last five or more years,” Austen said. “Continuing interaction with island visitors who ignore all posted rules and guidance is the cause of ‘food aggression’ yet the horses end up being punished.”
Assateague visitor Susan Hassan said she’s seen visitors interacting with the park’s horses—that humans aren’t supposed to go within 40 feet of—and is disappointed by the lack of enforcement she’s seen from park rangers. She believes that rather than removing horses who are simply attempting to eat what they’re offered, the rangers should focus on fining people who don’t follow the rules.
“Rather than being greedy and allowing far too many irresponsible people onto the island, at the very least, could the rangers strictly enforce the rules that are clearly not being followed and do this on a regular basis?” she said.
Visitor Beverly Dant says it’s not fair for Delegate’s Pride to be branded as aggressive “in the wake of a constant barrage of human rule breaking.” She’s seen people feeding the horses, trying to ride them, pulling their manes and tails and not restraining their dogs around them.
“The bad behavior didn’t start with the stallion I’ve watched since he was a foal,” she said. “It started with people.”
Austen is worried that the park’s millions of annual visitors will continue to have a negative impact on the horses who call the island home. She stressed that the horses’ behavior is the result of people not keeping their distance and not following guidance on food storage.
“Where will this end—will more horses be shipped out?” Austen said. “Chip is not the only horse who has learned that visitors bring food … Who is next?
Delegate’s Pride, a bay stallion born in May 2009 according to the Assateague Island Alliance website, is being relocated to Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. The ranch in Murchison, Texas, is a renowned wildlife sanctuary. The 1,400-acre property is home to hundreds of domestic and exotic animals.