Are the feral horses on Cumberland Island National Seashore being properly managed?/The Current

GA - The Trouble With Horses On Cumberland Island

Editor's note: The following story is from The Current, an independent, in-depth and investigative journalism website for Coastal Georgia. Feral horses — especially the females — live a short, sickly life on Georgia’s largest barrier island, advocates say.

At least 150 feral horses roam Cumberland Island National Seashore.

Tourist sites highlight them. Visitors seek them out for photos. Artists celebrate them in paintings. The combination of island mystique and equine charisma is hard to resist.

Yet Cumberland's horses are not universally embraced. In fact, Athens-based Attorney Hal Wright has a message many of the island's equine enthusiasts don't want to hear: "Cumberland is bad for horses and horses are bad for Cumberland."

Wright represents the horses on Cumberland, the Georgia Equine Rescue League, the Georgia Horse Council and Cumberland resident Carol Ruckdeschel on whose behalf he sent a demand letter in late August to the National Park Service threatening to sue if the service didn't start managing the herd.

Their argument boils down to this: Failing to care for or remove Cumberland's horses amounts to animal cruelty, which Georgia law forbids. They cite both Georgia’s Humane Care for Equines Act and the Georgia Equine Act.

The National Park Service hasn't responded to the August letter.

Horse History

Cumberland is the largest and southernmost of Georgia's barrier islands. It's loved for its sandy beaches scattered with driftwood "boneyards," for its maritime forest of twisted oaks, and for crumbling ruins of its gilded age mansion, Dungeness.

Visit Dungeness and you're almost guaranteed to see horses grazing in and around the decaying buildings. The postcard-perfect scene helps promote local tourism.

Humans began living on the island as early as 4,000 years ago. But Europeans and their horses didn't enter the scene until the 1500s when the Spanish built a mission and fort there. More horses came after the arrival of Gen. James E. Oglethorpe, founder of the English colony of Georgia, who claimed the island in 1736 and named it Cumberland. By 1788, "free-roaming horses were reported on Cumberland Island," a letter from the time reported.

A feral herd continued to exist on Cumberland through the plantation era when enslaved people grew sea island cotton there. The horse population declined during the Civil War but increased through the gilded era when Cumberland became first the winter retreat and then main residence for steel magnate Thomas Carnegie, his wife Lucy and their nine children. At one point, over 50 horses were stabled at Dungeness alone, according to the Cumberland Island National Seashore website.

"Throughout the 1900s, new stock was introduced and some horses were taken off the island for sale," the website states. "Property owners on Cumberland managed horses as free ranging livestock from the 1940s until the 1960s. By the time the park was established in 1972, horses had become feral on the island."

With the National Seashore designation came research and documentation of the island's non-native species, including the feral horse. First, they were counted.

"NPS has monitored the island’s horses annually with population census techniques since 1981," Superintendent Gary Ingram and Cumberland staff wrote in an email response to The Current.  "Based on this, the herd appears to be stable at between 150 and 170 animals."

Genetic testing on Cumberland's horses published in 1991 indicated they are genetically similar to breeds including the Tennessee Walking horse, Quarter Horse, Arabian, and Paso Fino. The researchers noted that "we do not know if the horses present on the island shortly after the Revolutionary War contributed significantly to the current gene pool or if the population is of more recent origin."

The Island Harms The Horses

Regardless of their bloodlines, the horses are a draw for island visitors like Atlanta area resident Keiara Turner. She was curious about them as she boarded the 9 a.m. ferry from St. Marys to Cumberland in mid November. Turner had been on this trip three times before, first as a fifth grader. She was eager to see the horses again.

"Some are brown, some are white with black spots, some are all black -- those are pretty," she said.

But visitors don't see the whole story, said Carol Ruckdeschel, a biologist and naturalist who resides on the island. Now 81, she's lived on Cumberland since the 1970s studying its sea turtles and regularly surveying the beaches for dead animals she necropsies, documenting her findings.

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