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Way Downstream … (March 21-27, 2019)

New effort to protect Chincoteague ponies

      Those wild ponies roaming Assateague Island have been around since the 17th century after surviving a shipwreck, as the story goes. They’ve withstood wars, hurricanes, drunk drivers and tourists trying to feed them potato chips.

      But four centuries after their arrival, the Chincoteague ponies may be falling victim to another scourge: climate change.

     A deadly fungus linked to the warming climate led to the deaths of seven ponies last year. The mysterious infection, referred to as swamp cancer, enters the ponies’ bodies through cuts and scrapes or, perhaps, bites from the barrier island’s voracious mosquitoes.

     This week, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which manages the 150-strong herd, announced that remaining ponies will be vaccinated in April during the annual spring roundup in hopes of stemming the epidemic.

     The fungus has been reported in horses and dogs in tropical regions. But not until the summer of 2016 was an infection diagnosed in a Chincoteague pony, a mare who recovered.

     Up to now, treatment of the inflicted ponies involved expensive immunotherapy, removal of lesions and much care. Now there’s hope that a newly designed vaccine will preserve Chincoteague’s most famous citizens.

      “Just know that the process will be started and we are being proactive on this fungus,” the firefighters’ Facebook message read.