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The Washington Post

Navy's Plans Could Hasten End of Island's Equine Charm

BY Sue Anne Pressley

June 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , Puerto Rico -- This little-traveled island is best known for its role as a training site for the U.S. Navy over the past 60 years, a sliver of land that has been strafed and bombed by countless military jets in exercises like the ones this week.

But for its 9,000 islanders, and the 5,000 tourists who visit each year, something else provides Vieques ' special quality. Wild horses roam here, peering out of the tropical forests, eating mangoes by the roadside, prancing down the narrow highways.

They reflect the still-rustic rhythms of life here -- and probably have the most to lose should this bit of rural paradise be discovered and, as many expect, developed, now that the Navy has declared it will end its training and close its base by 2003.

Already the horses, known as Pasofinos, pay a high price for their contact with people. Unlike the ponies of Chincoteague, Va., which remain aloof from the hordes, the Pasofinos mingle with residents and tourists who visit Vieques each year.

They have the battered look of old prizefighters: foreheads cross-stitched with scars from the barbed-wire fences that exist in abundance here (but don't seem to contain very much); flanks gouged from run-ins with branches and briars and the small jeeps that cruise the island.

Andrea Kaufman of the Vieques Humane Society & Animal Rescue Inc., the island's only veterinarian, says she sees about one traffic casualty a month, and hopes for a time when Vieques residents will put up stouter fencing. Last summer, Vieques officials approved the first cattle-crossing signs for the island and briefly considered horse warnings, too, before nixing the idea, figuring they would only be stolen.

Now some are worried that as Vieques inevitably changes into a tourist venue -- its first resort is about to open -- the horses will be reined in or put in harm's way more often.

"I see a lot of the old wise ones . . . hanging on doing the best they can," Kaufman said. ". . . I would hate to see them go, but I want it to be safe for them."

The name "Pasofino" means "delicate step," a reference to the horses' distinctive four-beated gait, a feature that gives them a dainty, hurrying look. Brought to the island by Spaniards several hundred years ago, the horses have run loose as long as anyone can remember -- keeping the roadsides clipped with their grazing and wandering as far as they can on an oval of land that is only 21 miles long and 5 miles wide.

Island youth, too young to drive, rope and ride them as a rite of passage, and while most residents see nothing remarkable about the horses' presence, tourists are usually thrilled.

They encounter the horses on isolated dirt roads, where the animals appear to look them in the eye before fading back into the thickets, or on the few main highways, where they seem to show motorists their backsides as they haughtily take control of traffic flow. One thing Pasofinos have is attitude.

"Sometimes they act like 'We own this, don't bother us, this is our road,' " said Fernando Nunez, acting manager of the 3,100-acre Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, who thinks the horses "bring some character to the island."

"It's different from the rest of Puerto Rico ," he said.

Kaufman hopes microchips will one day be embedded in the animals to identify them. She also says that more of the male horses should be castrated to control the growing population, now estimated as well over 1,000.

"They're good horses, they have good temperaments," Kaufman said. "They're easygoing, easy to break, nice riding horses. Everybody has varying opinions about them. Some say round them up in one place, but if you do that, an owner will show up." Though the animals roam free, many are owned by island residents.

Vieques cattle, which tend to be the bone-colored, droopy-faced, hump-backed Brahman variety, do not excite the emotions as the horses do, although they also can play havoc with traffic when a herd goes slouching down the road, pausing every few steps in confusion.

Stephen Earson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service here, says the ever-grazing horses may not be as harmless as they seem, given the island's fragile ecosystem. Its tropical plants may be tasty, but they are also rare, he said.

"From a biologist's standpoint, they are not naturally here," he said, "and that means they can affect those species that are supposed to be here."

For that reason, Earson and others try to keep the horses away from the wildlife refuge, which is covered in mangrove swamps anyway. The animals also are prohibited by strong fences from some of the property owned by the Navy, which lays claim to two-thirds of Vieques .

But for now, the horses are seen almost everywhere on the island, in threesomes and foursomes, often including a mother and a young colt.

The latest young patient to come to Kaufman was recuperating at the seaside humane society on a recent morning, but not alone. The colt had cut itself terribly, carving a huge flap out of its chest when it ran into the rough edge of a sheet of corrugated metal.

At first, workers had taken the mother home -- the owner was found after the usual round of island inquiries -- but the colt became so upset that they were forced to bring the older horse back. The two stood quietly under a mango tree, protected for the moment from the changes that may be coming here.

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