Encountering the Other (When the Other is You)

“We never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.”
~ Peggy Tabor Millin, “Mary’s Way”

On Shackleford Banks, looking across the sound toward the Beaufort waterfront.

On Sunday, I knocked another item off my bucket list: Seeing the wild ponies on Shackleford Banks. On my first trip to the island 25 years ago, I felt as if I was going to kick the bucket. It was a steamy September weekend in 1988, and I was on a field trip as part of the oceanography course I was taking at Duke — mercifully, the last of the three hard-science credits I needed to graduate. 

A somewhat easier hike, 25 years later. But still hot. And beautiful. That’s the ocean ahead of us.

Beach trip! Yay! How hard can that be? My fellow undergrads and I were led on the excursion by one of the professors who co-taught the course, Orrin Pilkey, an esteemed coastal geologist. He bopped over the dunes, animatedly pointing out the maritime forest and explaining the ecology of the barrier island while we whippersnappers slogged behind (or maybe it was just me). We camped out overnight on the sand, serenaded by someone’s boom box blasting Guns N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” Ah, paradise. We saw a few horses, but they weren’t the point of our visit. Hence, my second trip.

A foal takes a drink. (This shot is a bit zoomed and cropped, FYI — I wasn’t that close.)

The Wild Horse and Shelling Safari with the Port City Tour Co. didn’t disappoint. Our guide, Jeannie Kraus, a retired curator with the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, was fabulous. After our 12-member group crossed the sound from Beaufort via a water taxi “ferry,” she led us along the sound side to one of the horses’ favorite feeding areas. We found a harem of about eight horses, including a mare and her foal and a watchful stallion, munching on the coarse grass growing out of the sand.

No fences. Not toys. Eating is serious business. Oh, and their rump brands are “freeze-dried,” allegedly painlessly. Wild animals, somewhat controlled.

Humans are to stay at least 50 feet away from the animals at all times — they are totally wild, after all. After we had lingered for about 15 minutes to take photos, a few of them started to herd our group, stepping closer to us and nudging us with their body language to back up and move on. (This is OUR grass!) Jeannie reminded us that, although they may seem cute and docile, horses — domesticated or otherwise — can charge, kick and bite and will not hesitate to do so if they feel threatened. I can attest to that from personal experience. 

The stallion, the black beauty on the right, marks his territory. He had been on the far left and slowly made his way right, herding the horses and alerting them to our presence. Which they were well aware of.

Although I was thrilled to see the feral ponies up close-ish, I felt a bit weird and guilty: Observing a thing changes the thing observed. The horses’ behavior clearly changed with our presence, even though they must be somewhat used to shutter-clicking tourists, daytripping beachgoers and researchers who check in on them and even name them. The stallion in the harem got all stalliony, and he and the mare both peed vigorously in the same spot (she went first) while staring at us — as Jeannie said, to mark their territory. (If I understood science, I could say something about how I think this is like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or Schrodinger’s cat, but I don’t, so I won’t. I get all my midlife science education from “The Big Bang Theory.”)

Evening primrose, retired for the day.

I remain deeply conflicted about how to interact — if that’s even the appropriate word — with animals, never mind humans. This is one reason I was never thick-skinned enough to be a reporter. I can take (and give) “no” for an answer. I don’t think I necessarily have the right to probe into someone else’s life or that I deserve their attention and answers to my questions. Yet I’m generally curious and I do often want to poke my nose where it might not belong (shiny objects!) — but not out of any wish to harm or even change the subject or the situation. I’m extremely ambivalent about zoos: educational for humans, but cruel to animals? How else would we or should we learn about non-human species? Why study the Other at all?

Our totally awesome guide, Jeannie Kraus.

Anthropologists and other scientists struggle with this as well, how to study the Other for the benefit of some greater good (whose?) without harming the Other: First do no harm. In yoga, the Golden Rule and Hippocratic oath are reflected in the idea of ahimsa, nonviolence — the seat of compassion. And we all have our own baggage of experiences and biases that we bring to such study. But through our actions and interactions with our environment — which includes all living things — we can’t help but have an effect on what we encounter. Sometimes the effects are immediate and obvious, whether positive or negative; sometimes the effects accumulate over time, like innocuous ripples that become a not-so-innocuous tidal wave. (Hello, global warming.)

Oysters in the wild, surrounded by fiddler crab sand balls. Neuse River basin + runoff = as if I need more reasons not to eat them.

The point, perhaps, is to be mindful and respectful of another creature’s space, time and attention, especially when we have invited ourselves into it without asking permission (Hey, horsies! Over here! Here we are!), and not to objectify the Other to the point that it becomes a perverse distortion of what we expect or want. To co-exist.

Indian blanket

After the ponies had their fill of us, ever-widening their invisible fence to push us farther and farther away, we took our time to cross the middle of the island, which is about nine miles long and half a mile wide. We ambled along the ocean side back to our ferry pick-up spot, as Jeannie, a biologist and botanist, pointed out plants and flowers along the way and noted erosion from recent storms. It was fun to hear her pick up where Dr. Pilkey had left off. I was glad to be able to see the island and the horses again with different eyes.

Didn’t get this purple guy’s name. “Take only photographs; leave only footprints.” Just watch where you step.

For further reading …

Here’s an interesting recent article on the Shackleford ponies that details some of their centuries-old history and their behavior: “Wild Horses of Shackleford.”

From the National Park Service, FAQs and visitor etiquette. 

And the Foundation for Shackleford Horses.

And a book from 2007, “Wild Horses of Shackleford Banks.”

The stunning Isabel, named (I think) for the hurricane that helped bring her into the world in 2003. (Zoomed and cropped.)

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