(May 31, 2019) The photograph shows a ribbon from a latex balloon hanging from a horse’s mouth on Assateague Island, suggesting that more serious consequences for T6CHU, as the horse is officially known, were inevitable.
But, as it turned out, they did not.
“We suspect that probably the ribbon that was tied to the inflated balloon was wrapped around some grass and that’s how it came to be in her mouth,” said biological technician Allison Turner at Assateague National Seashore.
Turner said the horse, otherwise known as April, was spotted roughly six or seven miles from the developed area of the island.
Photographers Ann Richardson and Penny Sperry, of Salisbury, were shooting in the off-road vehicle area of the island on Monday afternoon when they saw April apparently in distress.
Richardson recalled seeing the horse galloping across the dunes and “flailing her head around.”
Richardson added park rules prohibit people from coming in contact with the horses, and she reported the incident to park rangers.
“… I just feel so helpless. You know she’s in distress and you can do absolutely nothing for her,” Richardson said. “So it was not a good feeling.”
When the rangers arrived, Richardson said they tried approaching the horse, but “she wouldn’t let anybody let anybody near her” and “the other mares were being protective of her.”
She then saw April on a nearby hill with the ribbon no longer in her mouth. At first, she thought the horse might have ingested it. A ranger, who had responded to Richardson’s report, asked if anyone had found the balloon, prompting Richardson and Sperry to look for it.
“So I was so glad that he came and encouraged us to look for it because that’s when we found the end of it,” Richardson said. “So we think she swallowed the ribbon but not the balloon.”
It’s unclear how April came in contact with the balloon.
“They can wash in from out of the ocean or from other locations,” Turner said. “It can come from anywhere.”
Following this incident, Richardson wondered what may have happened if she hadn’t been there to report it.
“My thought is not just poor April, my thought is it was over within five minutes, how often does that happen that nobody’s around? Richardson asked. “I know they survive it, but some of them probably do not survive it.”
While “this actually was more of a freak incident probably” for a horse, Turner said birds and sea turtles that ingest or get entangled by balloons or plastic particles are at great risk.
She also stressed the importance of breaking littering habits.
“Don’t just drop it on the beach and so it is kind of an ongoing educational thing that we would do,” Turner said.
Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education at the National Seashore, said she’s previously dealt with plastic being found along the beach.
“So there are consequences for these balloon releases and littering that you know are far reaching,” Davis said. “We do not allow balloon releases on Assateague Island, but we pick up balloons all the time coming from everywhere else.”
Richardson said she recently picked up 19 Mylar balloons in a single day on Assateague. She urged people to choose more environmentally friendly gifts.
“Buy some flowers instead. Buy some flowers for god’s sake,” Richardson said. “I can’t buy another balloon. I can’t even look at them anymore.”