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Business News/ Specials / No Pay, Big Bugs and Obnoxious Tourists. But Many Love the Job

No Pay, Big Bugs and Obnoxious Tourists. But Many Love the Job


National Park Service’s volunteer ‘pony patrol’ helps wrangle the humans and protect the wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore

With the relaxing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, visitors crowd the boardwalk on Memorial Day weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, U.S (Reuters)Premium
With the relaxing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, visitors crowd the boardwalk on Memorial Day weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, U.S (Reuters)

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Md.—Joe Lieb vividly recalls the time a stallion sniffed out a bunch of food unwisely left in a tent, nosed its way inside and gorged on the bounty as alarmed campers banged futilely on pots.

“The horse ate the bagels, the doughnuts. Everything that was in the tent to eat, he ate," he said. The horse then “did a little dance-prance walking down the beach, like ‘I’m cool.’ "

Lieb,a 74-year-old organic farmer and beekeeper, is a veteran member of the Pony Patrol, a volunteer team that works the Maryland section of Assateague Island National Seashore, a federally run camping and recreation area on the Atlantic Ocean extending into Virginia.

The Patrol aims to keep visitors and the island’s wild horses safe—and safely separated—by educating people, interrupting bad behavior and prodding the four-legged residents to move along when necessary.

National parks have seen a boom in tourism in recent years, and the National Park Service says it is always looking for people to volunteer, whether it’s “close to home or at a dream destination."

The Pony Patrol is not for folks who say neigh to a little adversity.

“Constant exposure to heat, sun and biting insects make this position an arduous assignment," says thepark service’s posting for the gig. “Good people skills are a must!"

Lieb jokes his vest should say “People Patrol." These days, some selfie-seeking visitors get way too close to the roughly 80 horses—many resplendent in flowy manes and coats of white, brown and tan—that call the Maryland side of the park home. Some give them potentially harmful victuals or leave their own food unsecured despite myriad warnings horses will scarf down every scrap if given half a chance.

“We want to save people from themselves," said Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education at the park and its volunteer coordinator. Every year, horses bite or kick several visitors and leave nasty cuts and bruises.

She sees Pony Patrol members, many of them retired or semi-retired, as vital “boots on the ground," especially in summer. Crowds have grown in recent years and last year topped one million visits to the park’s Maryland side.

“People have come up and asked me, ‘Where do I go so my kids can ride the horses here?’ " said Candi Golden, one of nine current volunteers. “Well, nowhere."

Local lore says the horses are descended from survivors of a long-ago shipwreck, but the more likely and mundane story is that herds were brought from the mainland in the late 1600s to avoid fencing laws and taxation, thepark service says.

Today’s Assateague horses are adapted to island life, and eat grasses and leaves, drink from freshwater ponds and hang out at the beach to escape flies on brutal hot summer days.

Volunteer Carol Fritz, a retired nurse, said she covers up from head to toe even in August to thwart the “hummingbirds," aka mosquitoes.

The slow-moving golf carts volunteers typically drive offer a bit of a breeze, plus shade. On board they keep an array of tools—rock-filled shakers, spray bottles and colored flags—for nudging horses out of campsites, roadways and other trouble spots.

Fritz, who patrols with her husband, is an avid flag waver. “I jump around like a kangaroo," she said. Not that horses necessarily respond. “They look back at me, they’re defiant. I know which ones are going to give me the evil eye."

Volunteers help alert law-enforcement rangers about violations. Last year 269 citations were issued, the park service says, with one woman fined $280 for giving a horse a carrot.

A food-habituated stallion named Chip, meanwhile, was moved last spring to a Texas sanctuary due to his aggressive ways.

“I’d have to go from table to table to table to tell people to pack up their food because Chip was coming," volunteer Laurie Westling said. “He was the one that would take eggs right out of the skillet."

Westling is newly retired from aerospace company Northrop Grumman. On a recent Saturday, she spent part of her five-hour Pony Patrol shift along a main road as several horses grazed nearby in a marsh. A line of cars sat parked on the shoulder, and gawkers took pictures.

Westling, in mirrored shades, ball cap and a fluorescent Pony Patrol vest, let a 9-year-old girl know she was closer than the minimum 40 feet. She gestured to several drivers not to stop in travel lanes—which can create a “pony jam"— and told others they could pull over long enough for one photo.

Back in the golf cart, she headed for the campgrounds. Six horses, including a 10-day-old foal, were occupying the campsite just vacated by Ankit and Shefali Kumawat. The Pennsylvania couple had packed up their tent but now couldn’t get to their Honda Accord with young stallions milling around.

For 45 minutes, the Kumawats and their dog, Bravo, had stood watching the scene, along with a gaggle of camera-toting visitors.

Westling took charge, aided by Davis, the volunteer coordinator, who rattled a shaker. Westling spritzed water at the back of a stallion, spurring it to take a few steps. Then she summoned Ankit Kumawat, who jumped in the car and pulled out of the campsite.

“I’ve never seen such an amazing thing before," he marveled afterward.

Rolling on in a drizzle, Westling pondered the day. “Everybody was responsive, compliant, polite," she said. Sometimes they aren’t. She said people have told her: “I paid $25 to come in this park and I’m going to see a horse. Don’t tell me what to do."

Lieb said he once applied verbal “shock treatment" to a woman who allowed her child to stand within kicking distance of an ornery stallion. “I said, ‘The closest ambulance is 25 minutes away. Do you want to subject your daughter to that?’’

“The horses know what they’re doing," he said. “The people come and they do all the absurd things we really don’t want. Not everybody, just some people."

Write to Scott Calvert at

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