Be sure and look for this beautiful animal while you are at Dungeness. But better hurry — she may not be around much longer.
Cumberland Island is no paradise for horses. We imagine that animals confined in a pasture would be happier running free, but this assumes that those animals can thrive in a totally new environment to which they are not adapted. The notion that freedom equals utopia is a romanticized version of reality. It is the opposite of the hardships experienced by the feral horses on this island terrain so alien to them. Poor diet, parasites, and disease take their toll on Cumberland’s horses each year.
Thick draping manes and tails are an advantage in open grasslands, but become a liability in a tight forest environment. They easily snag on vines and briers, and many times hold fast, condemning the animal to starvation, heatstroke or dehydration.
With little nourishing grass available, the open, plains-like appearance of the salt marsh is inviting and lures horses. But to reach the grass, they must go ever deeper into the dangerous mud. When they suddenly sink so deep they are unable to extricate themselves, the incoming tide drowns them. Buried logs threaten to snap their long slender legs.
Their food supply is sparse. A close look at any open field or “lawn” reveals small amounts of actual grass. Alligators, venomous snakes and encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes all add to the daily hazards faced by island horses.
What’s the solution? Ultimately, all feral animals should be removed—for the health of the horses and the island. the National Park Service is mandated to do so. Contraception could humanely reduce their numbers, and remaining horses could be adopted out.