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Burroing In

The Platero Project helps the little equines that could

Ears up, these wild Texas burros survey their human visitors. Photo by Nicole Paquette/The HSUS

The first time Heidi Hopkins ever saw burros in the wild was more than a decade ago, in the McGee Mountain Herd Management Area in northern Nevada. It was early spring, and the burros still had their thick winter coats.

Hopkins—at the time working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the government agency charged with managing the animals’ population—remembers looking around at the scrubby, high desert terrain and thinking how amazing the animals were: Even in the winter, they were surviving on the little water and desert vegetation there was, eking out an existence, as they have for hundreds of years.

Sweet of face and fuzzy of ear, the small donkeys are no pushovers. Burros' need for protein is lower than that of horses, making them excellent survivors in harsh conditions. And faced with a predator like a coyote, burros will stand their ground—an unusually feisty behavior in equines, who tend to flee when faced with danger.

In the years since, Hopkins has devoted her career to protecting wild burros and horses. Now manager of the Platero Project at The HSUS—a program devoted to humane and sustainable approaches to the management of wild burros—she notes that while they’ve come a long way, the animals still need help.

A Herd With History

The herds of wild burros that still roam several western states are part of the surviving history of the American West—and of this country itself. Burros were aboard ship on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus, brought along by the explorer to do what they have long done for humans attempting to settle strange territory: carry goods, supplies and people into areas that would never have been accessible without their sure-footed assistance. The 19th-century prospectors who exulted about the wealth buried in the stony hills of California could never have profited from that precious ore without the burros who carried it out, stepping nimbly along beneath their heavy loads.

  • Rescued burros at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. Photo by Michelle Riley/The HSUS

It's somewhat of an irony that much of the land through which burros and horses once carried settlers is now used by ranchers for livestock grazing.

Over time, those burros and horses who escaped or were turned loose by human settlers formed wild herds. Canny survivors, they reproduced and gradually came to be seen as a threat to the vegetation ranchers wanted for their livestock. For decades, it was open season on these animals—they were hunted from vehicles and aircraft and often sold for slaughter. Many were treated brutally.

That changed in 1971, when Congress, recognizing the animals’ plight, designated the wild burros and horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and protected them from this kind of treatment. The government gradually developed a management method that largely consists of roundups within “overpopulated” areas and adoption of these animals to the public. But especially in these recent years of economic recession, fewer adopters have come forward to help. Currently, more than 800 burros live in government holding pens—a “service” for which the American taxpayer foots the bill.

Kinder, Smarter Management

With the assistance of a generous donor, The HSUS is working on approaches that go beyond the reactive. Through the Platero Project—named for a faithful donkey in a book by Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez—the organization aims to use fertility control drugs to help reduce the number of burros who need to be removed from the wild.

PZP (porcine zona pellucida) is already in use by the BLM to control wild horse populations. “Wild burro populations could be managed with fertility control drugs, but the BLM has yet to give fertility inhibiting drugs to one wild burro,” says Hopkins. The HSUS hopes to change that by darting wild burros with PZP and studying its effects on several western herds.

At the same time that it’s working to keep the wild population at sustainable numbers, the Platero Project is helping the burros who have already been removed from the wild. By training some of these animals to become equine companions and sometimes protectors of herds or flocks—a coyote trying to sneak into a henhouse doesn't stand a chance against a gutsy burro!—the project is educating people about these intelligent creatures and promoting their versatility as adoption candidates.

More than 140 wild burros have already found homes through the program, and close to 200 have been placed in sanctuaries. It’s a kinder and smarter way of handling the animals whose ancestors helped build this country.

To learn more about the Platero Project, email Heidi Hopkins.

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