“This is an event that we see as cruel, dangerous and ill-advised,” said Ashley Byrne, PETA’s associate director.
The fire department fired back in Facebook posts and appears to have no plans to change the event.
The Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim, typically in July, dates to 1925 and draws about 40,000 visitors each year. The swimming of the wild ponies has grown in popularity and became memorialized by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel “Misty of Chincoteague,” which later became a movie.
After the swim, some of the younger ponies are auctioned off at a nearby fairground to raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which takes care of the animals. The auction, supporters said, keeps the pony herd’s population at a manageable level and protects their environment.
But PETA said the swim and auction are harmful to the ponies.
“Forcing ponies to swim this long distance so they can be paraded to spectators and then sold off to the highest bidder is animal abuse,” Byrne said. “These are wild ponies. They should be wild and not sold where they could then be sold for slaughter.”
Denise P. Bowden, a spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, referred to a Facebook post and said that’s “all we are going to say” about PETA’s criticism. She wrote in an email, “We think we explained ourselves well and for us, that’s the end of it.”
In the Facebook post, the fire company called PETA’s claims “untruths” and said the group was trying to “fool the general public” about the pony event. The group said PETA’s claim that “we ‘force’ [the ponies] to swim” is untrue, adding that the ponies are cared for year-round, are regularly checked by veterinarians and receive vaccinations and other medical care.
The Facebook post said, “while these ponies mean a great deal to the Fire Company, the town and the county financially, we are also human beings who see these gorgeous animals as the beautiful creatures they are and we handle them with the care and respect they deserve.”
Without the pony swim and auction, the Facebook post continued, “these animals would end up over populating, eat themselves out of house and home, suffer diseases and injuries without any help at all.”
Byrne said PETA believes the animals should be allowed to live in their natural habitat, while humane contraception for the ponies could counter worries about overpopulation.
The debate was fueled, in part, after one of the ponies, Butterfly Kisses, died last week in what the fire company called a “freak accident in the pen.”
Another pony was chasing her as she was running and she slipped, falling “hard to the ground and slid into the fence breaking her neck,” the group said. Veterinarians and horse experts rendered care, but the pony was euthanized.
On its Facebook page, Chincoteague fire officials wrote, “We feel that we manage this herd very well. It was an accident that has really broken our hearts.”