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Coco – Assateague Island

March 20, 2013

Maryland – Monday, March 11

On my way out to Assateague Island, I stopped in downtown Salisbury to walk along the river walk and saw lots of ducks and herons.

Then I drove out to Assateague Island, and stopped at the visitor center first. It was a good visitor center and I talked with the rangers quite a bit. They had a small aquarium with a pregnant male seahorse – baby seahorses must be really cute! There was a good video about the ponies, and the Maryland side of the island is managed differently than the Virginia side, since they do not participate in the annual swim/auction in Chincoteague. The Maryland side of the island can support about 80-100 horses, and there are currently 113. So they are using a contraceptive program that is working well enough that other groups are looking at it. Since mares can produce one foal a year, the goal is to limit the number of foals a mare can have in her lifetime. Once a year the rangers go out to the different bands of horses to fire contraceptive darts into the mares’ rumps to prevent pregnancy. They do this to all 2,3 and 4 year old fillies/mares. Mares who are older than 4 are allowed to have one healthy foal, and then the contraceptive darts are used for the rest of her life. This practice allows every mare to eventually have a foal, yet it keeps the island from becoming way over-populated, and it’s been a successful program. The ponies have been on the island for over 300 years, and have adapted well to their salty, marshy surroundings. They have short legs and sometimes look a little bloated, but that’s because they drink more fresh water than many other horses, because most everything they munch on has a salty film on it.

My donation today went to the Assateague Island Alliance, which helps the island and its ponies. The donation also allowed me to become the proud new “foster parent” of Coco – a buckskin mare who used to live in one of the island harems, but during the chaos and commotion of Hurricane Sandy, she was stolen away by another stallion and now lives in another stallion’s harem at the other end of the island! Coco is the only buckskin on the island – most of the ponies are pintos or chestnut colored, but there are a few other colors as well.

After the visitor center I drove across the bridge to the island and headed down the one road on the island. I saw a couple of the ponies nearly right away by the side of the road. There are signs reminding people that the ponies are wild, and they can kick, bite and charge, and there were actually a couple pictures of bite injuries in the visitor center. I stopped and walked on a couple short trails that Tula wasn’t allowed on. And the road and trails were closed about halfway down the island due to wet conditions. But there was a beautiful beach, and Tula and I walked a couple miles along the ocean, listening to the waves and gathering some shells. It was kind of misty out and the beach was absolutely deserted as far as I could see – it was beautiful. I could see 5-6 trails of hoof prints, and knew the horses had been walking the same beach earlier! But I didn’t see any on the beach. As I began to drive back out, I saw 8 ponies – all grazing on the roadside grasses. They totally ignore cars and people. most of the rest of the horses were out of sight, and many were probably on the inaccessible south end. I’m happy to have seen the ones that I did!

Then I drove back across the bridge to the visitor center and left the van there while Tula and I walked across the pedestrian bridge that was side-by-side with the vehicle bridge – I can’t resist walking on bridges when I’m able to! And I liked the fact that pedestrians and bikers had their own bridge – I don’t see that very often! We walked partway onto the island too, to get some more distance – but I didn’t want to go down far enough to where I’d seen the ponies. From all the manure and hoofprints around, it looks as though the ponies sometimes come right up to the bridge! Needless to say, motorists need to use a great deal of caution. Camping is allowed on the island (I only saw one motor home – the weather wasn’t great) and people have to respect the ponies and their space, even though the ponies do not respect campers’ belongings!

Once I saw everything I wanted to, I decided to drive along the narrow spit of land between Ocean City, which was nearby, and the border of Delaware. With water on both sides, I thought it would be a pretty drive with a pretty sunset, but the space was entirely filled with mile after mile of hotels, condos, rental properties, and shops – many of which were closed. It’s just hard to imagine the need for so many places to stay during a relatively short season.
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