October 24, 2014
There's Just Something About Burros
The Platero Project seeks to increase adoptions for "the Labrador retriever" of the equine world
by Ruthanne Johnson
As Kim Porter makes the morning rounds on her northeastern Massachusetts farm—checking in on the geese, horses and ponies—the special greeting from her burro, Nacho, entices the biggest grin, his squeaky little “hees” without the “haws.”
“He stands in the back of his stall,” Porter says, “and when he sees me, he walks towards me going, ‘Hee, hee, hee!’ ”
AT A GLANCE
The Platero Project pays trainers a small stipend to gently train individual burros, preparing them for adoption.
To learn more or to get involved, contact Heidi Hopkins.
Once near, Nacho nuzzles her face or hand with his muzzle. And when she leads him to the paddock for breakfast, he turns his head inquisitively toward the place she keeps the peppermint candies—his favorite treat. “But he’s never demanding,” she says. “He just pauses and gazes toward [them]. He’s very polite.”
Nacho’s gentle spirit soothed Porter after cancer treatment and following the death of her mother last year. She loves the way he tosses his head and bucks a little after being put in the paddock for his breakfast, and the way he runs in the pasture with the horses and then grazes quietly beside them. “Whenever I’m with him, he makes me smile,” she says. “He’s just so sweet and kind.”
Porter and her husband adopted Nacho in March through the Platero Project. An HSUS program funded by private donors and named for the main character in a book by Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, the project pays trainers a small stipend to tame wild burros through gentle training, with the goal of increasing the number adopted from Bureau of Land Management holding facilities.
The Porters had initially signed up to train and find an adopter for the reddish, frosty-faced burro. “But the minute my husband met Nacho, he was like, ‘He’s not going anywhere!’ ”
He never nipped or kicked during his training, but once he did act peculiar when a helicopter flew overhead. “He was so frightened,” Porter remembers. “He froze up and ducked and was just panicked.” Turns out, Nacho had been rounded up by helicopter in 2012 along with more than 300 other burros in Arizona. For more than a year, he’d lived in a government holding facility in Canon City, Colorado. Though the burros are well cared for there, their barren, dusty pens include little to keep them occupied.
Nacho’s journey is one endured by many members of his species. About 8,400 wild burros roam public lands in small, scattered herds—descendants of work animals brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers. Burros (the Spanish name for donkey) often escaped or were released into the wild.
As their populations grew, some people viewed them as competing with cattle and sheep for grazing lands. The BLM now conducts annual roundups of “excess” animals, transporting them to government holding facilities where they’re available for adoption.
After economic recession in 2008 triggered a downturn in adoption rates, “that’s when the number of burros in BLM holding facilities really started piling up,” says Heidi Hopkins, who manages the Platero Project. In 2013, about 1,300 burros lived in holding.
A second phase of the project will look to manage wild populations through fertility control, similar to the work being done with mustangs. But that plan is awaiting BLM approval for additional studies.
In the meantime, the project aims to market the animals’ unique personalities and potential as pets. With the help of 40 trainers, 200-plus burros have found new homes or placement with sanctuaries.
“People love burros,” says Hopkins. “They have the most amazing personalities and are just hilarious. They’re kind of like the Labrador retriever of the equine world.”
They follow people around. They love to be petted. And they can learn tricks like negotiating an obstacle course. They have a reputation for being difficult, but their admirers believe they are simply thinking things through before jumping blindly into new activities. “People say they are stubborn and mean,” says trainer Dani Horton, who founded Hope Equine Rescue in Florida. “That’s not true.”
[Burros] are programmed from Day 1 to look for a leader for answers. As long as you are a strong leader and do not cause them any harm or pain .. they'll do anything for you.” - Cindy Brasfield, trainer
Take the case of Ears, whom Horton trained through the Platero Project. When she first arrived, the little burro with the slight humpback was afraid of her own water bucket. “With wild burros,” Horton says, “everything is new to them and they are terrified of everything.”
To establish those first inklings of trust, Horton spoke calmly to Ears while sitting in her stall. Techniques like that—or touching between the shoulder blades or briefly putting on a halter—are foundational in gentling equines. By the second week, Horton could touch Ears. “Once she realized we could scratch her in places where she couldn’t reach, she would actually leave her food for a scratch.”
Clover is another burro rounded up from western Arizona—just a yearling when she was transported in 2011 to a temporary holding facility in Ridgecrest, California. There, she was vaccinated and branded before being sent to a facility in Utah. In 2013, Clover was sent to Oregon trainer Shelby Bishop, who taught her basics such as being led by halter, loading onto a trailer and lifting each foot for farriering. Shelby also taught Clover to accept a saddle and even broke her tendency to nip by gently nudging her mouth with an elbow.
These days, Clover lives with 11-year-old adopter Emily Crabtree and her family in Washougal, Washington. She hangs out in her 2-acre pasture and gets frequent visits from neighbors, friends and the family dog. Emily placed a stool in the barn to read and sing to Clover, and she practices leading with her favorite treats: carrots and apples. To help Clover overcome her fear of plastic bags, she placed a bag in her stall with carrots on top.
Clover’s “mouthiness” is now all about kissing. She loves having her head held, says Emily’s mom, Cindy. “She’ll put her whole head in your arms, close her eyes and just stand there … like you’re rocking a baby.”