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On The Coast: Vaccinating Wild Assateague Ponies

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Imagine a nature walk on a beautiful barrier island not far from Ocean City, Md. Now imagine a nature walk where your chief objective is to find wild horses and administer a birth control vaccine.

That's all in a day's work for scientist Jay Kirkpatrick. In the late 1980s, he launched a vaccination program on Assateague Island, known around the world for its wild horses. Those horses were rapidly reproducing and damaging the island's fragile ecosystem.

"We had 175 horses here, and they were having a serious impact on the general ecology, and that included nesting birds and small mammals and marshes that should be knee-high in grass looked like golf courses," says Kirkpatrick.

So he developed a method of administering a contraceptive vaccine via a dart gun.

"It was the first time the vaccine had been used on free-ranging wildlife of any species," he says. "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 never done that before,"

He says the vaccine, now used with animal populations all over the world, isn't all that different from those we give ourselves.

"It's a vaccine, and it causes antibodies to be produced," says Kirkpatrick. "In most vaccines those antibodies fight some disease process. In this case, the antibodies actually block fertilization.

Of course, before you can vaccinate a wild horse, you have to get close to it. On a recent visit to Assateague Island, Kirkpatrick and a colleague spent hours trekking across remote marshes in search of a particularly elusive mare. They eventually did administer the vaccine to the horse, but the process was an arduous one.

"This is not easy, and there are people who support it and promote it, but they don't have a clue how difficult this is," he says.

[Music: "Wild horses" by Bossa Nova on Bossa N' Stones]


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