As part of the 3rd Donkey Welfare Symposium in Davis California, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) provided 20 wild burros from their adoption scheme for us to work with, with the idea of adopting out the burros at the end of the event. But before I get started on what it is like to work with a wild burro and what you can learn from them, I thought perhaps a brief clarification and history might be needed especially for those of you reading this who are not from the USA.
First off, the word “burro” is derived from the Spanish word “borrico” meaning donkey. Burro refers to a small donkey, often used as a pack animal. It is kind of strange to note that the burros we worked with weren’t small by UK standards. In fact they were quite a bit bigger than our standard donkey in size and build.
What is a wild burro? A wild burro is a free-roaming, unclaimed, unbranded burro found on BLM or US Forest Service (USFS) administered rangelands. The majority of wild burros live in the arid deserts of the south-west. Wild burros are descendants of pack animals that wandered off or were released by prospectors and miners. Burros were first seen in the Arizona territory in 1679, when Jesuit priest Padre Eusebion Kino brought them to the Spanish mission at San Xavier de Bac in southern Arizona. Ever since then they have been escaping and very successfully breeding in the wild. So successfully, in fact, hat their ever increasing numbers became a problem and they we hunted and slaughtered in large numbers in the 1800 and early 1900s.
After much campaigning, an act of Congress was passed in 1971 to offer these wild burros and horses some protection and acknowledged the importance of wild burros and horses to the American people.
"Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; (and) that they contribute to the diversity of the life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the America people." (Public Law 92-195, December 15 1971.)
Federal protection, and a lack of natural predators, resulted in thriving populations of wild burros that can double in numbers every four years. The BLM monitors rangelands and wild burro populations to determine the number of animals, including livestock and wildlife, which the land can support. Each year, the BLM gathers excess wild burros from areas where vegetation and water could be negatively impacted by over use. These excess animals are offered for adoption to qualified people through the BLM’s Adopt a Horse or Burro Program.
The size and scale of wild burro management is huge. In California alone, wild burros and horses roam over 9.3 million acres, which is an area 3.5 times the size of Devon and Cornwall combined. In the USA. as a whole, wild burros and horses range over more than 31 million acres, which is an area equivalent to half of the UK. On these ranges across the USA there are estimated to be almost 11,000 wild burros and just over 47,000 wild horses.
The animals that are removed from the ranges to manage population numbers are kept by the BLM in corals and ranges until they can be adopted or sold. In October 2015 the BLM had 47,204 animals under its care in the off-range facilities, 1,268 of these were burros. Between 1971 and 2013 37,258 burros have been adopted and in 2014 346 burros found new adopters.
So these symbols of the America West arrive after a four hour journey from the BLM holding facility in an open trailer and the first thing that they do once released is, of course, to start eating. Heads down searching for scraps of hay and leaves, demonstrates their wild adaptability and survival instincts still very much in place after time in BLM corals.
The thing that first strikes me is their calmness. The term “wild” always creates a vison of nervous, panic and flight dominated behaviour, but perhaps as a result of their time off the range and in corals they show very little of this they and explore and settle. The BLM has bought their familiar hay with them to avoid upsetting their diet and after a short rest they get down to the serious behaviour of eating.
Despite their calmness it is clear that there is so much that they have not experienced and everything is treated with suspicion. Obviously, we put out water in large clean black troughs, but they don’t touch it for two days. The containers are unfamiliar and probably smell different to their normal supply. Their first sips are tentative and cautious before they accept this source is safe to consume. So don’t take your donkey's consumption of water for granted - monitor and provide choices.
We have to move six burros through the stables to the other side of the barn, but of course none of these burros have been inside and stepping into a dark, enclosed stable even just to walk through it is a huge ask. It takes 5 minutes of gently pointing them in the right direction before they make the first of several attempts to enter the stable. Then walking as though they are on thin slippery ice they slowly develop a game of follow the leader through the stable and passage back into another stable before finally, with a great deal of relief, getting outside again. People can take so much for granted when working with “domesticated” donkeys. Expecting them to deal calmly and without hesitation with the huge range of environment s and situations, these burros should remind us everything is learnt. They treat every new experience with caution. Donkeys don’t innately know what is safe and treat everything with suspicion. So when working with them we need to allow time to learn even to the most simple of things.
Over the next few days as training begins the students discover something we all know but seldom comprehend. Equines don’t like to be touched by humans. I know, I know it sounds basic, but the comprehension of this single fact is ground-breaking. Donkeys have to learn first to accept being touched and then only with experience do they start to enjoy human contact and having a scratch. Some students are disappointed/surprised that this complex piece of learning takes some donkeys three days. I am amazed it takes some donkeys as little as two days to grasp the value of humans beyond feed and water. Donkeys can only learn to enjoy human contact through experience. These “wild burros” seem to trust far faster than I had expected, even though the students are learning and so making mistakes the burros are a blank slate, pretty much. They don’t have to unlearn a mistrust of human bought on by poor handling or abuse, instead they accept and learn new behaviour very quickly.
Even the burro that we had to trap and sedate heavily so we could clean and treat a wound on her hind leg and give two intravenous injection to the next day, progresses the fastest and furthest of any of the 20. Treatment doesn’t have to be a bad experience. Kind, calm handling in any situation save times in the long run as it does not damage the donkey's trust in humans.
The most spectacular example of the true nature of donkeys is that during three days of close contact and handling in small groups, in unfamiliar pens and stalls with inexperienced trainers, there is not one threat to a human. There is no kicking or biting, not even threats to bite or kick, not even a tail swish in the direction of a human. Their total instinct is to avoid conflict with humans. They don’t want to have a fight, dominate or control humans. It is the biggest myth in equine training that donkeys want to control or dominate. It seems to me all the kicks, bites and threats we might see in the domesticated donkey are a result of poor training. If a trainer pushes a donkey too far, too fast and the donkey can’t escape from the pressure of the trainer they end up defending themselves and in doing so learn that kicks and bites are effective at controlling people and being left alone.
I have always argued that the true nature of equines is to comply and avoid confrontation, unless humans force them to defend themselves. It is sad that the behaviour we see in so many donkeys is man-made and yet it is blamed on the character of the donkey. The labels of naughty, stubborn, difficult and worse actually indicate a lack of knowledge and understanding of the true nature of equines by the person labelling the donkey. Believing in their true nature is the foundation in treating donkeys, mules and horses more ethically, safely and more effectively during training. We are the problem not them. We teach them the behaviour they display; our job is to use our trust in their true nature to help prepare them to meet the difficult challenges domestication brings calmly and patiently.
Using their true nature as a foundation for our beliefs is what brings about changes in compassion and empathy with the donkeys wherever we find them. It is our responsibility to not blame the animal for their behaviour and to see beyond the fear and learnt defence of their true nature and help them release their true potential. These amazing wild burros have yet again proved that donkeys are the best teachers - the difficult thing is accepting the lesson.
For more information on the work of the BLM wild horse and burro program, please watch this video.