Monday, January 29, 2018

Book Review - Wild Horse Scientists

Reviewing the Wild Horse Scientists
Assateague Island is a barrier island off the coast of Maryland. On that island lives a wild pony herd. In my opinion there is nothing better than relaxing on the beach during a day off, watching the wild ponies walk by. Meanwhile, behind the scenes there are people who work hard at managing the wildlife on this island - including working to keep this beautiful herd of horses safe and healthy. Wild Horse Scientists by Kay Frydenborg is an interesting and enlightening book that I recommend to everyone interested in horses, islands, or wild life management. 

Wild Horse Scientists

Wild Horse Scientists by Kay Frydenborg is listed as a Junior Library Guild Selection, a part of the Scientists in the Field series, and is marketed as a book for children. The Amazon product description lists it as age 10 and up and grades 5-9. But I must say, as an adult who has spent much time on Assateague Island, feeling exhilaration at the sight of the ponies, the book enthralled me.

Wild Horse Scientists follows the journey of several people who study and attempt to preserve the Assateague wild ponies via the least intrusive means possible. Left to fend and breed on their own, their life cycle would overpopulate the island. While there is no way to predict how many horses the island would support in any given year, and any given season, it is fact that overpopulation of the island would cause the untimely deaths of the ponies; among other environmental problems.

This small, 80 page book really packs a punch. It briefly addresses things such as:
  • The world history of the horse
  • How wild horse populations came to be in the US
  • Describing that there are two horse populations on Assateague Island; the Maryland end and the Virginia end. While the Virginia herds are the most well-known through history, the two herds are managed very differently.
  • Different ways of wild horse management through the US, through the years.
  • What PZP is and how it came to be
  • An idea of how the study of animals is very time consuming: familiarity with travel patterns, feeding, habits, reproduction, and being able to document each individual animal in order to keep accurate records.
  • Major Human Players

In Wild Horse Scientists, you will meet the following people who dedicate their lives to good works toward wild horses, wildlife, and the environment. If you have ever thought that wildlife protection and studies are easy and an enviable career, this will show you that this important work is not easy work. These talented folks have done far more than listed here, but this is a glimpse of the part they played in learning how to manage the Assateague pony population.

Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick – World renown for his advocacy of wild horses, wildlife reproductive expert, and developer of non-hormonal birth control (PZP).

Ron Keiper – An Ethologoist (studies animals in their natural habitat) who braved the weather, terrain, and flesh-eating insects on Assateague in order to provide information and begin providing individual documentation of the Assateague ponies.

Allison Turner – a 20+ year National Parks Service biological technician. She monitors the wild species, all of the wild species, on Assateague.

Dr. Lisa Ludvico – studied the reproductive strategies of wild mares – providing helpful information through reproductive behaviors and DNA analysis.

Dr. David Powell –his Doctorate consisted of exploring the social behavior and reproduction of wild horses; important information in considering birth control for wild horses.

Dr. John Turner – A research partner who led the research that resulted in improving the forms of PZP, making it longer lasting.

Robin Lyda - and had a large role in making and purifying PZP.

The “two BLM cowboys” with the Pryor Mountain Range mustangs whose request for help, in essence, was the beginning of the story.

These folks along with everyone behind the scenes worked hard at finding a way to manage the Assateague wild pony population. The controversy and issues surrounding the delicate balance of healthy horse herds in the US abound. Left alone, the book confirms that horses repopulate very quickly – causing environmental issues. Culling the herds is costly to both humans financial sources and to the emotional peace of the horses. Selling the horses for meat is distasteful in the US. And finally, removing foals from the mares in order to maintain the population has been statistically proven to make the mares produce more quickly.
Some of the beautiful ponies I've seen on Assateague

My Skepticism About Wildlife Birth Control

I bought the book with some bit of skepticism. Some years ago, after seeing newborn fawns (deer) in what seemed to me dangerously late in the season, I did a small bit of research. I thought I had read that trials of birth control being used in deer herds could cause mating season and birthing season differences. I do not recall at this time if the birth control being tried was PZP or other chemicals. And I did not follow this topic further. But I always worried about the impact of chemically altering the reproduction cycle of wild animals.

I purchased this book mainly because I loved the photographs when I had flipped through. I ended up learning quite a bit about wildlife contraception.

It appears that PZP has been created with a great deal of thought, research, and effort and seems to be doing a great job with managing the horses on the Maryland end of Assateague Island with no negative side effects. I am a believer.

This is good news and important work that may help wildlife management on so many levels.

Whether you read this for the beauty of the photographs of the ponies, to gain some Assateague Island experience from the comfort of your home, or to learn more about the science of animal birth control, I think you will love this little book.

I found this book during a day trip to Assateague Island National Seashore, I made a stop at the Barrier Island Visitor Center. I had toured the original Visitors Center, built in 1967. But I had yet to stop at the new Visitors Center that opened in the fall of 2010.

The Visitor Center is wonderful and will need it’s own review. I highly recommend that travelers to this area make time to stop and enjoy what this center has to offer. And I highly recommend this great little book called Wild Horse Scientists by Kay Frydenborg.

Note: The author may receive a commission from purchases made using links found in this article. “As an Amazon Associate I (we) earn from qualifying purchases.”



  1. I have always wanted to see the wild horses at Assateague Island. It never occurred to me that any kind of population control would be necessary to assure enough room and food for all the horses. Fascinating.

  2. I have to say, I much prefer a birth control to any other herd reduction considerations. The efforts and life commitment of these scientists to helping maintain a healthy herd is truly most impressive and admirable. Thanks for the information and especially for the book recommendation.

  3. This is a topic I'm not very up to speed on, but do hear and read about it from time to time. Thanks for helping me understand the issue a bit better. I know this, I don't have enough info on this topic to give an educated opinion, however every time I read about it, it helps.

  4. I would enjoy learning more about the scientists who manage the wild horses on Assateague. This book sounds like one I need to read. Thanks for the lead. Have wanted to experience the wild herds there since reading my favorite childhood horse books. Many books targeting older youth readers are outstanding books for adults.


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