RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

From "Black Beauty" to "The Red Pony," horses have inspired writers and artists for centuries, actually. The wild horses of Maryland's Assateague Island also draw some two million visitors every year. But as Donna Marie Owens reports, interaction between man and beast is causing some problems.

DONNA MARIE OWENS: The first thing visitors notice about Assateague Island National Seashore is this: The 114 wild horses that inhabit its beachfront park along the Atlantic Ocean. Whether it's a chestnut mare chomping grass near a roadway or a stallion and several mares trotting near a campground filled with RVs, it's striking just how close these stunning, wild horses can get to visitors.

Ranger Allison Turner of the National Park Service monitors the herd.

ALLISON TURNER: Those horses are not afraid of people, and they - if they smell the food, they may go investigate. They can learn that it's easy access to food.

MARIE OWENS: Tammy McAdoo and her family are visiting from Arkansas.

TAMMY MCADOO: Just a minute ago when that one came to the edge of the picnic table there is about the first time we've got this close to them.

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MARIE OWENS: Horses are typically herbivores. But thanks to visitors who pet and feed them, park volunteer Pam Stansell says they've developed a taste for things like junk food.

PAM STANSELL: They like everything. They'll eat chips, hot dogs, raw meat, dog food.

MARIE OWENS: The horses can become aggressive when they want grub. They block roadways, poke their heads into cars and even use their teeth to unzip tents.

Stansell is part of Assateague Island's Pony Patrol. They help ensure that the public enjoys these horses at a safe distance. Pony Patroller JoAnn Donovan explains.

JOANN DONOVAN: Because if they do buck or make a sudden movement, you're not going to be trampled.

MARIE OWENS: Good advice, but Stansell says many parents ignore it.

STANSELL: A lot of them like to put their child on the ponies, if they could, to have a photo-op. They don't recognize that these ponies really are wild.

MARIE OWENS: Assateague officials cite several incidents of horses biting and severely kicking visitors. Some horses have also become so acclimated to people that they stand along park roads seeking handouts.

DONOVAN: Visitors must secure food and trash and remain at least 10 feet away from the horses. Violators risk a $100 citation and maybe a swift kick.

For NPR News, I'm Donna Marie Owens.

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