The first thing visitors notice about Assateague Island National Seashore is this: The 114 wild horses that inhabit the beachfront park along the Atlantic Ocean have full run of the place.
Summer is peak season for some 2 million tourists who visit Maryland's Assateague Island, famed for those wild horses. But increased interaction between man and beast is causing problems with the horses' diets and behaviors.
A Taste For Junk Food
It's striking just how close the stunning wild horses get to visitors, whether it's a chestnut mare chomping grass near a roadway, or a stallion and several mares trotting near a campground filled with RVs.
Ranger Allison Turner of the National Park Service monitors the herd, and says the horses are not afraid of people.
"And they can become curious about them or they may — if they smell the food — they may go investigate," she says. "They can learn that it's easy access to food."
Tammy McAdoo, visiting from Arkansas, says a horse came right up to the edge of a nearby picnic table.
"[That's] about the first time we got ... close to them," she says, but she wasn't sure if the horse was hungry. "We don't have any food out ... I guess he wanted the shade, really."
Horses are typically herbivores. But thanks to visitors who pet and feed them, park volunteer Pam Stansell says they've developed a taste for things like junk food.
"They like everything. They'll eat chips, hot dogs, raw meat, dog food," says Stansell.
The horses can become aggressive when they want grub. They block roadways, poke their heads into cars and even use their teeth to unzip tents.
"There were two ponies in one of those tents with the food, and just [took] it to task," Stansell says.
Couldn't Drag Them Away
Stansell is part of Assateague Island's Pony Patrol. The volunteers ensure that the public enjoys the horses — at a safe distance.
Pony Patroller JoAnn Donovan explains that this is because "if [the horses] do buck or make a sudden movement, you're not gonna be trampled."
Good advice, but Stansell says many parents ignore it.
"A lot of them like to put their child on the ponies, if they could, to have a photo-op," she says. "They don't recognize that these ponies really are wild."
Park officials cite several incidents of horses biting and severely kicking visitors.
Some horses have also become so acclimated to people that they stand on park roads seeking handouts. On average, one horse per year dies at Assateague after being struck by a vehicle.
To address these issues, park officials recently instituted new rules: Visitors must secure food and trash, and remain at least 10 feet away from the horses. Violators risk a $100 dollar fine — and maybe a swift kick.