Almost every day, a dozen or so wild burros (small donkeys) come down from the foothills of the Black Mountains of north-western Arizona onto the main street of Oatman, a revitalised high desert mining town about 15 miles from where California, Nevada and Arizona meet.
No one remembers when the burros first came into the mountain town that is bisected by the hairpin curves and switchbacks of Old Route 66, but they do know burros have lived in the area for more than a century.
However, it wasn’t until the tourists began visiting the town in the early 1970s that the burros made their regular visits, arriving each day on no set schedule, but usually leaving about 4:30-5pm when the tourists leave.
The townspeople provide love, concern, funds for veterinarian bills, and two water troughs for the burros who work the Main Street tourist industry. Sometimes the residents will brush the burros, but the burros themselves are adept at making sure the entire pack is clean and groomed. The tourists pet the burros, have their pictures taken with them, chat with them, and feed them carrots, available for US$1 a bag from the Oatman General Store or any of a dozen other stores. The burros work for food.
Once protected by federal law, the nation’s 3,000 wild burros and 33,000 wild horses, as well as 24,000 horses in short and long term sanctuaries, now face Congressionally-approved slaughter.
Senator Conrad Burns inserted a rider into the 3,000 page omnibus spending bill of 2005, approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush, that requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to sell all wild horses and burros which have not been adopted in three attempts or which are 10 years or older. Wild burros have life spans of 25-30 years; domesticated burros can live 45 years; wild horses have life spans of 20-25 years. The animals, according to the legislation, “shall” be sold, and can be butchered. There were no hearings or debate.
The public may not know what forces helped convince Burns to silently insert the rider into the Appropriations Act, but one thing is certain - the beef industry has its brand all over it.
During the mid-1800s, more than 2.3 million wild horses and 60 million bison freely roamed America’s west. But ranchers, who had already seized land from the Indians and were deep into a land war with farmers, saw horses as competition for unfenced grazing land. They poisoned the horses’ watering holes, blinded the lead stallions by shooting their eyes out, or simply ran them to death, up and over cliffs, according to Mike Markarian, executive vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Ranchers “even captured wild mustangs, sewed their nostrils shut with rawhide so they could barely breathe, and returned them to their herds so they would slow down the other horses and make them much easier to capture,” says Markarian. In 1897, Nevada allowed unlimited killing of mustangs.
By 1900, the bison were almost extinct, the result of indiscriminate killing during the nation’s “Manifest Destiny”. Half a century later, mustangs were close to meeting the same fate as the bison: That’s when Velma Johnston, to become known as “Wild Horse Annie”, began a national campaign to save wild horses and burros. It took two decades until Congress unanimously passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that gave federal protection to the animals and made it a felony for anyone to capture or harm them.
In 1974, the first federal census of wild horses and burros revealed that only 60,000 remained in Arizona, California, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. The BLM plans to reduce the population on public lands to about 20,000, removing at least 11,500 wild horses and burros in 2005. This number is below the minimum necessary to sustain healthy populations, according Dr Gus Cothran, equine geneticist at the University of Kentucky. The minimum number of horses and burros in each herd management area (HMA) needs to be at least 150, says Cothran. Under BLM plans, about 70 per cent of the HMAs will have fewer than 100 animals. Estimates by animal rights groups place the number that will probably be slaughtered by the end of the year at between 6,000 and 14,000.
Prior to the new federal law, the BLM sold “excessive” horses and burros for US$125, and then gave full ownership only after a year, during which time the owner had to provide adequate space, shelter, and care.
However, the BLM has a long history of neglectful oversight after the animals are sold, and even has a history of willful violation of the law. In 1997, animal rights activists revealed that BLM employees personally profited by selling mustangs and burros for US$400-$500 each, and then falsified records. Under political pressures, however, the investigation, which had resulted in indictments by a federal grand jury, dissolved.