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Donkeys Take Flight to Safety

The HSUS airlifts more than 100 wild donkeys from Hawaii to California, where sanctuary and possible adoption await


by Julie Hauserman

Post-flight update:

The 119 wild donkeys airlifted from Hawaii are settling into life on the mainland at Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue in Tehachapi, California.

“They are all recuperating fine” from the long trip, says Peaceful Valley manager Mark Myers. “We’re going to give them a few weeks to get used to the California weather.”

At the end of October, Peaceful Valley intends to make some of the donkeys available for adoption, but only to people who are familiar with handling wild equines.

Six of the donkeys—dubbed “Nightingales” because their nighttime braying calls echoed across Hawaii’s big island in years past—will go to live at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, and about a dozen will go to live at Eagle Eye Sanctuary in Northern California.

September 16, 2011

More than 100 donkeys set off on a historic adventure Friday from Hawaii’s Big Island. With help from The HSUS, they are flying in a special cargo plane from Hawaii to California, where they’ll start new lives in sanctuaries, and some will be eventually available for adoption.

It’s all part of an HSUS-organized and funded effort that has already seen more than 200 wild donkeys humanely captured, sterilized, and adopted.

Castoffs of the coffee industry

  • Hello stranger! After a long flight from Hawaii, a pair of donkeys greet at the Peaceful Valley Sanctuary in California. Danny Moloshok

  • A herd of wild donkeys with no safe home in Hawaii will be flown by The HSUS to the mainland, where they'll live in sanctuaries (and may be adopted). Eugene Tanner

  • Dr. Brady Bergin examines one of his charges at The HSUS clinic, where the donkeys received medical care and tests and identification chips before their flight to California. Eugene Tanner

  • The male donkeys were sterilized before being taken to their new homes. This guy is recoving from the anesthesia. Eugene Tanner

These long-eared herd-mates descended from the donkeys who worked on Hawaii’s coffee plantations. As agricultural operations became mechanized, donkeys were no longer needed, and some were set loose. In the wild, the herd grew to between 400 and 600 across more than 10,000 acres of private land near Waikoloa, a village in the South Kohala district.

Starving for help

It wasn’t paradise for the donkeys: They competed with island cattle for food and water, strayed onto busy highways and came into neighborhoods looking for sustenance. But Stan Boteilho, a cattle rancher who was leasing grazing land where the donkeys roamed, stepped up to their defense.

"Somebody told me I could shoot them...but I didn’t feel that was the right way to go.”

“I felt sorry for them,” said Boteilho. “I had a couple donkeys as pets myself when I was a kid.”

During a long drought, the donkeys came out of the wild to eat the food that Boteilho purchased to feed his cattle.

“The donkeys were starving. There were too many of them. Somebody told me I could shoot them since they were on my lease, but I didn’t feel that was the right way to go.”

The donkey rescue begins

Boteilho reached out to a local veterinarian, Dr. Brady Bergin, who contacted Inga Gibson, The HSUS’s Hawaii state director. That’s when the Waikoloa Donkey Rescue and Rehoming Project began. Boteilho put out food and water and humanely trapped the donkeys. He then took them to Bergin for neutering, rehabilitation, and adoption into loving homes.

“It’s a lot of work, but I feel good about it,” Boteilho said of his donkey roundups. “My friends help me, my father-in-law helps me, so that makes it interesting. I like helping the animals, so it’s all a plus. And the way it’s turning out, it couldn’t be better for the donkeys.”

A herd of heroes

“This wouldn’t have been possible without our donors, supporters, and many Hawaii animal lovers,” said HSUS Hawaii State Director Gibson. “They include Botheilo, Anika Glass, who founded a group called Malama Waikoloa Nightingales, CB Horse Rescue founder Bird McIver, and Dr. Bergin, the lead veterinarian and coordinator of the project."

San Francisco architect Ugo Sap, who owns Eagle Eye Sanctuary Foundation for donkeys in Northern California, has generously provided substantial funding for this project, including today’s massive airlift.

“I definitely wanted to save these donkeys,” said Sap, who will be taking a dozen of the donkeys to join the Eagle Eye Sanctuary herd. “I think they are super sweet and super intelligent.”

Other major financial supporters of this unique project include the Wendy P. McCaw Foundation, the Pettus Crowe Foundation, and the West Hawaii Humane Society.

Help the rest of the herd » 

First stop: sanctuary

A team with trucks and trailers will meet the donkeys in L.A. for the 3-hour drive to their new home in the mountains of Tehachapi. All of the donkeys will go first to Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue , which will work to place adoptable donkeys in loving homes. (Mark and Amy Meyers, who run the sanctuary, are accompanying the donkeys on the flight from Kona to Los Angeles along with Dr. Bergin.)

First, we want to let them recover from the trip,” Mark Meyers said. “We’ll let them wander around. Everything is going to be different for them.”

The Black Beauty Connection

These aren’t the first donkeys to be airlifted to safety. In 1979 Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory orchestrated an astonishing helicopter airlift of 577 burros targeted for slaughter in the Grand Canyon.

Some of the rescued Grand Canyon burros lived out their lives happily at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas . And it’s fitting that six of the Hawaii donkeys will move from Peaceful Valley to Black Beauty once they are acclimated to life on the mainland.

“This is a continuation of our organization’s commitment to protecting wildlife and our desire to work with local communities to solve wildlife conflicts in a humane and sustainable way, one that avoids lethal eradication,” said Keith Dane, Director of Equine Protection for The HSUS.

The rescue isn't over

Today’s airlift will reduce the Hawaiian herd to 200, and Dane says the rescue and sterilization operation will continue. While it’s preferable for the remaining wild donkeys to stay in Hawaii, a new home for the entire herd probably can’t be found locally without appropriate land being designated for sanctuary.

 You can help the donkeys

» Provide sanctuary: If you're a property owner who's interested in donating land to provide sanctuary for the animals, contact The HSUS's Wildlife Land Trust to discuss the process.

» Volunteer: If you would like to volunteer, contact Hawaii State Director Inga Gibson at igibson@humanesociety.org.

» Adopt: If you would like to adopt a donkey, please complete the pre-adoption application. Learn what's involved in caring for a donkey from The Donkey Sanctuary or Donkey Rescue

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