On The Coast: Vaccinating Wild Assateague Ponies (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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On The Coast: Vaccinating Wild Assateague Ponies

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Okay, we're going to head out on a very different sort of nature walk now, one that involves heavy duty galoshes, wild horses and birth control. Intrigued? Well, we'll find out more on this week's On The Coast. Assateague Island, out near Ocean City, Md., is famous around the world for the wild ponies that live on this narrow spit of land. Nearly 20 years ago, scientists launched a program to administer a birth control vaccine to these animals. The goal was to keep the herds in check and protect the islands ecosystem. The programs developer, Jay Kirkpatrick, recently returned to Assateague and he and Bryan trekked across the island as they tried to administer the vaccine to a rather illusive mare.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

00:00:47
If you've ever been to Assateague Island, it isn't uncommon to see wild horses grazing on the side of the road as you drive to get to the National Park and the beach. Often times you'll see cars pulled over to the side of the road, taking pictures. But today, I'm standing a few feet away from a guy who's taking aim at a female horse, not with a camera, but with a gun. And it's loaded with one dart, a PZP contraceptive vaccine.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

00:01:14
The dart hits the horses squarely in the behind and it quickly gallops away up the road before she stops and continues grazing with a few other horses. Jay Kirkpatrick has taken many shots like this over the years. He's been here in Assateague all week and now there's just one more horse that needs the vaccine for the year.

MR. KAY KIRKPATRICK

00:01:32
Well, there's essentially four steps to this whole process and the first one is to find the horse. And that's going to take up a good part of our day because we're down to really one really spooky horse out on a place called Little Levels. So we have to find her. Then, once you find her, the hardest part of all comes, and that's getting within shooting distance, which means up to about 40, 45 meters.

RUSSO

00:01:57
Right.

KIRKPATRICK

00:01:58
The third step is to take that shot and get her, get that vaccine in her and then the fourth step is to recover the dart.

RUSSO

00:02:05
I guess talk about what the vaccine does.

KIRKPATRICK

00:02:07
The vaccine is really, in many ways, no different than any vaccine we give our pets, that we give our domestic animals, that we give ourselves. It's a vaccine and it causes antibodies to be produced. In most vaccines, those antibodies fight some disease process. In this case, the antibodies actually block fertilization.

RUSSO

00:02:27
Well, it's interesting because the vaccine's been around for decades. But I found it very interesting that, I guess, the first species of animal that this vaccine was used on was the wild horses here at Assateague Island. Talk about that.

KIRKPATRICK

00:02:40
That's correct. In 1988, we came out here and it was the first time the vaccine has been used on free ranging wildlife of any species. And we treated 26 mares that first year, never touched an animal. And in 1989, we had zero foals out of those 26 mares and no one had ever done that before. People had done contraception in animals, but they had to catch them and put implants in them or one thing or another. We never touched an animal.

RUSSO

00:03:10
And now your work has taken you all over the world, working on many different kinds of animals, from elephants to deer to horses as we're doing here today. But I guess, talk about how important this, you know, science is for controlling wild animal populations.

KIRKPATRICK

00:03:27
Well, here at Assateague, this is a very fragile barrier island ecosystem. And when we started at the management level, we had 175 horses here and they were having a serious impact on the general ecology and that includes nesting birds and small mammals and the marshes that should be knee high in grass, look like golf courses and so on. So by the same token, the enabling legislation, the law requires that these horses be maintained in perpetuity. The trick was to get to a level where the impact was acceptable. And so thus far, we have taken the herd from 175, down to 111 with a goal of getting down a little bit below a 100. And we're already seeing the difference in the ecology of the island, just going from 175, down to 111.

RUSSO

00:04:22
We finally got out of the truck and started trudging through the thick mud and marshland, through thickets and jagger bushes, often crossing over little water arteries the park rangers call guts. As we got closer to where the band of horses were enjoying the lovely spring morning, Jay Kirkpatrick told me something about how the horses have learned to stay one step ahead of them over the years.

KIRKPATRICK

00:04:42
When we first started this work in 1986, our delivery equipment was much more primitive than it is now. And our maximum range was 20, 25 yards. And it only took a couple of years before the horses would stay out there, 30 yards. And then as the delivery equipment improved, I could get out to 30 and 35 yards and the horses would start to stay out there at 40 yards. And as that went on for a couple of years, we got better at what we did and we learned to pick off horses at 40 yards and they learned to stay out there about 50 yards. It's been kind of an arms race here.

RUSSO

00:05:28
Finally, after an hour or so of walking, what felt like several miles, we have the band of horses in our sights. But very quickly we noticed that they already knew we were coming. As we inched around the corner, thinking we'd get our shot, there was already a lookout horse there. And as our eyes met, the group almost immediately took off.

KIRKPATRICK

00:05:48
This is not easy.

RUSSO

00:05:49
Yeah.

KIRKPATRICK

00:05:50
And there are people who support it and they promote it and they think it's great, but they don't have a clue how difficult this is.

RUSSO

00:05:58
And as we trudge back to the truck through the muck and the mire, I kept thinking about a little quip Jay Kirkpatrick said to me at the beginning of the morning. He said, there are days where you just have to call it quits because sometimes the horses just win.

SHEIR

00:06:12
That was coastal reporter, Bryan Russo, on Assateague Island with Jay Kirkpatrick of the Science and Conservation Center. And in case you're wondering how everything turned out, Jay and his colleagues did eventually track down that wild mare and finish this year's vaccination campaign triumphantly.
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