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October 5, 2006

 In the News

SHOUT OF THE DESERT: Maybe I was mistaken, but I felt certain I'd seen that one burro before. Or perhaps the whole lot them, jacks and jennies both. It was early Saturday evening, and the end of the first day of the Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro adoption at Redwood Acres in Eureka. The burros stood close together in the dirt pen, tearing at chunks of green hay, half-indifferent to the few lingering people wandering around outside their enclosure and stopping to gaze through the railings curiously, longingly, at them. Now and then, one of the burros directed a long-nosed, erect-eared stare right back -- curious, also, but certainly not beseeching.

No, I'm sure I'd seen some of these wild donkeys before. Back in the desert, in a village outside of Las Vegas, they'd wander with proprietary ease into people's yards to pluck the trees bare of their fruit and leaves and strip the gardens of their delicious flowers. If they could, they would eat the houses, too, and the cars and maybe even the children. They're a hungry lot, those burros -- but vegetarian, alas.

I'd often go wandering myself out into the undulating terrain of the desert bajada fanning out from the mountains, so rapidly being gobbled up by bulldozers and houses. In the springtime, the subtle-toned shrubs would suddenly blush gaudily, fragrantly, into purples, pinks, whites and yellows, and the joshua trees would explode with rank, waxy pale blossoms. And most times, out there, I'd inadvertently stumble into a pocket of burro society -- the stamp and snort and rising cloud of dust usually warned me seconds before I saw them. They'd turn in unison to face me, hop-snort forward and stamp again, shaking their bodies angrily. I'd retreat -- "Whoa, sorry" -- and steer wide of them. Make no mistake, this was their domain. Theirs, and the bands of shaggy, sharp-hooved wild horses' -- some regal, some roguish -- who roamed the desert and crowded all-a-trample at the springs, smashing plants and scaring the bejeezus out of the native bighorn sheep, according to wildlife biologists.

Why, once, over a couple ranges to the west in a remote valley, I happened to be soaking late one night in one of the hot springs with some friends when, out of the darkness, came the shuffling sound of heavy bodies moving through the brush, cracking twigs. We looked up: Our pool was now rimmed by the silhouettes of burros, their big, blocky, triangular heads and long fuzzy ears looming black against the starlight. We stayed still, and soon the burros relaxed and turned away to nibble and pluck at the landscape.

At Redwood Acres, they just looked like simple farm animals. Not wild, really. And maybe this was because they've been living awhile in federal holding facilities, where wild burros and horses are taken after periodic roundups on the public lands of Nevada, California and other western states. And they'd also been touring around to other towns. After Eureka, they were headed for Susanville. The horses in the pens next to them also seemed docile, if not particularly open and friendly. One black mare did stretch her head toward the railing to let a little red-headed girl kiss her stubbly soft nose. I closed my eyes and all I could hear was the oddly soothing sound of the teeth of 60 horses and burros grinding in unison on thick, dried bristles of hay.

But, as usual when I think about wild burros and horses, my mind was troubled. Mix people and equines, it seems, and you get confusing outcomes: love-at-first-sight, and irrational behavior. I wanted to adopt every one of those big, soft-eyed, beautiful animals. Looking at the lists tacked outside each pen, I wasn't surprised to see that the prettiest, most striking horses and burros had been the first to be adopted. That tall red roan with the ethereal veil of bone-white hair sprinkled over red -- probably the first to go. The white burro, big-boned and obvious, and so different from its gray, cross-backed companions -- also already adopted.

I kept remembering the down side of our love affair with wild equines. Because of Wild Horse Annie, who back in the 1950s raised a stink about the capture of wild horses by "mustangers" (who sold them to meat factories), and subsequent outcries, federal law now protects the animals. But they have no natural predators on this continent -- they're relatively new arrivals, just like European Americans. They breed like rabbits, they eat voraciously, and -- at least back near that village outside of Las Vegas (itself a monument to what non-natives can do to a fragile landscape) -- they often wander into the highway for treats from tourists and, often, get hit by cars. In times of drought, when the range dries up and the water vanishes, horse lovers and federal managers put hay out for them and fill water tanks to keep them alive. It all seems a little out of whack, a system driven more by emotion than practicality.

I never do arrive at a comfortable answer. My mind says, get 'em all off the public lands. My heart, though, goes all soft and stupid when I'm staring one of them in the face.

-- Heidi Walters



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