The world famous celebrities of Assateague Island, Md., should be worshiped from afar. In fact, it is illegal to do otherwise.
The strict no-contact rules have been put in place to protect both visitors and residents of the 37-mile-long barrier island, of which two-thirds are situated within the boundaries of Maryland; the southern third resides in Virginia, which neighbors Maryland to the south.
The seashore ecosystem hosts a robust plethora of wildlife in the air, on land and in the boundary waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Replete on the island are hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, from migrating waterfowl to deer and elk to foxes and raccoons to frogs and snakes.
But the most popular and sought-after fauna are the wild horses that roam the island at will. Once numbering in the hundreds, the present herd hovers at around 80, largely due to a federal contraceptive darting program started in 1994, which has kept the population sustainable and has doubled the lifespan of the horses from 15 to 30-plus years.
No one quite knows how the horses arrived on the island, but several theories compete as the explanation.
Some assert the horses swam to the island after the Spanish galleon cargo ship transporting them sank off the coast circa 1750.
Others believe early colonial settlers brought the horses to the island to graze, thus avoiding paying taxes for the use of real estate on the mainland.
A distant third explanation is the horses owe their arrival to pirates who were initially drawn to the island but later left, abandoning the herd.
The Spanish galleon theory seems the most credible, as a Spanish shipwreck was discovered in 1997 just off Assateague Island and DNA testing indicates the modern population includes the most genetically congruent descendants of Spanish horses brought to the Americas in the early 1500s.
Assateague Island is jointly owned and managed by the National Park Service, Maryland State Parks and United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Natural Resources. The Assateague Island National Seashore was established in 1965 to preserve the barrier island and surrounding waters and provide recreational opportunities.
Visitors are welcome to engage in various family activities, including sightseeing cruises, kayak tours, fishing, crabbing, hunting, bird watching, biking and hiking. The National Park Service allows off-road vehicles with an appropriate permit on certain parts of the island. The state park hosts 350 campsites. Camping is available year-round on the island, which enjoys a humid subtropical climate.
There are no permanent residents on the island, and thus no shops, restaurants or other businesses. Visitors can, however, travel a mere 1/4 mile north of the island to the resort town Ocean City, Md., famous for its 3-mile boardwalk, eateries and other recreational offerings.
Visitors have many opportunities to view the wild horses, such as sightseeing tours, kayak ventures and along hiking and biking trails. Because 95% of the horses live away from the island’s roads, spotting them by car is not the most promising approach. In fact, stopping or parking along the roadways is prohibited. Another warning to drivers: the horses’ eyes do not reflect light at night, making them all but invisible after dark, so extreme caution is imperative.
Contrary to one common misconception, the wild horses of Assateague have not evolved their digestive systems to be able to live on the Atlantic’s salt water. The horses, in fact, subsist on the fresh water of the numerous ponds and marshes throughout the island, and feed on saltmarsh cordgrass, dune grasses, bayberry twigs, rosehips and persimmons.
The National Park Service’s website, nps.gov, devotes pages to no-nonsense warnings and strict rules and regulations for visitors seeking to capture a memorable experience with the equestrian wonders.
The rules have been mandated for the health of both the visitors and the horses. “Despite their good intentions, some visitors love park animals to death,” reads the website, blithely incorporating a somewhat macabre pun. “As wildlife become used to humans and lose their natural fear, the animals become aggressive and may be destroyed. Although they may appear harmless and even curious about you, horses do injure visitors every year. That’s partly why approaching, harassing or feeding any kind of wildlife, no matter how small or familiar, is illegal in all national parks.”
The site dictates visitors stay at least 40 feet (“or about one bus length away”) from the horses. “Stay safe and never assume you are the one that can get away with a close encounter.”
It is even illegal to call, click, whistle or make noises of any kind to attract wildlife. “Animals deserve to enjoy the park without disruption just as you do.”
Park rangers are not hesitant to issue citations to visitors who touch or feed any wildlife. Other rules of engagement include:
- If wildlife approaches, back away and maintain your safe distance.
- Store your food in your car or in a sealed container.
- If taking photos, use a camera with a zoom lens to maintain safe distancing.
- Avoid noise and quick movements, which can threaten wildlife.