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Assateague horse dies after eating dog food, officials say

Don’t feed wild ponies on purpose, secure provisions to stop them from snacking
By Brian Gilliland | Jul 27, 2017
Photo by: Submitted photo Chama Wingapo

(July 28, 2017) A few days before Chama Wingapo, a 7-year-old mare, was found dead without visible injuries in one of the Assateague Island National Seashore’s campgrounds, rangers noticed her odd behavior and attributed it to the usual cause: human involvement.

At first, the suspected culprit was a plastic grocery store bag, which tend to tangle with the other matter in the horse’s intestinal tract and cause a condition called colic. Colic, in horses, is similar to a bad case of cramps, except it can be fatal.

Speaking on the issue of plastic bags found in horses a couple of years ago, Kelly Taylor, interpretation and education supervisor for the park, explained that horses can’t vomit, and don’t even really burp, so anything that enters a horse is on a one-way street.

But it wasn’t a plastic bag, though those do continue to cause animals and park staff trouble. Chama Wingapo ate a lot of dog food, and it impacted her bowels, ruptured her intestine and killed her.

Education and interpretation chief at the National Seashore, Liz Davis, said most dog food contains corn, soybean, and animal products with a very high carbohydrate, protein and fat content. This recipe is too rich, she said, and in large amounts is deadly for an Assateague wild horse whose natural diet consists of low nutrient, high fiber saltmarsh and beach grasses.

Davis said the horse ate a lot of dog food — more than a single cup or bowl would hold. She said the amount found was probably a bag’s worth. Anecdotally, she said, campers with large dogs present were on site around the time Chama Wingapo started displaying symptoms.

“While the dog food may not have been given directly to the horse, the dog food was not properly stored away from the horses and other wildlife. All food, including your pet’s food, must be properly stored. This tragic incident could have been prevented by simply storing pet food in a vehicle,” Davis said in a statement.

“Everyone kind of knows what a horse is. They have the image of the kid holding a sugar cube or an apple and expect a similar encounter, but these are wild animals. You wouldn’t behave this way with a bear. You wouldn’t behave this way with a moose,” Taylor said.

These horses know how to defend themselves and potential food sources, Taylor said, which a number of visitors discover each year when they are bitten, kicked or chased.

The horses, having already identified people as sources of food perhaps more palatable than the salt-laden grasses they subsist on, learn. What they learn is, people are often extraneous to the transaction.

Like bears, they will raid camps. They will raid coolers. They will raid picnics, cars or basically any source of food they think they can get into — even food secured in coolers under picnic tables isn’t safe.

And it can kill them.

The park has been working for years on a solution, from developing “horse boxes” like containers offered at campsites in bear country, to stationing interns as a pony patrol — ensuring visitors don’t misbehave and mistreat the animals at the same time.

No one solution seems to be enough, and as soon as an answer is found either the humans or the horses change the rules.

The horses either figure out something new, like opening coolers or the people do, like disabling protections on water spigots for human use to provide water for horses.

“It’s not getting better,” Davis said. “We invest time and effort in the horse/person interactions, but we still need people to help us out.”

Davis suggests the following precautions:

• Horses can open snap-on lids and latches. Coolers and containers stored under picnic tables are not secure from horses and wildlife. Secure all coolers with a nylon strap to prevent wildlife from opening.

• Secure all tote or beach bags with a zippered closure. Horses can easily access open totes and bags.

• Store all unattended food in your vehicle.

• Store all pet food in your vehicle. Do not leave your pet’s food and water bowls unattended. Horses, like your pets, are opportunists and will take advantage of a free meal.

• Keep food stored if horses are in your immediate vicinity. Wait until they have moved on before beginning your meal.

• Dispose of your trash immediately in dumpsters. The smell from food wrappers will attract horses and other wildlife, and if ingested could cause death.

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