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In Need Of A Forever Home: Curbing Arizona's Burro Boom Through Adoption

(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Tom Taylor and Hualapai are kind of stars of Arizona's Adopt-a-Burro Program. Since Taylor adopted her in 1989, the pair have hiked almost daily, even down the Grand Canyon.

Billboards are popping up across the Valley and the state raising awareness about adoption — of burros, that is.

The wild small donkeys are cute. They're also invasive, with an estimated population of 4,800 in Arizona. That’s 3,000 more than the federal government says the environment can sustain.

But since burros are federally protected, there's only so many ways to deal with the problem. One is giving them forever homes.

Just ask Tom Taylor and his big-eared, brown-and-white burro, Hualapai. After nearly 30 years together, they have the kind of relationship where when he calls her, she answers with an excited, drawn out bray.

Taylor adopted Hualapai back in 1989, when she was less than a year old, through the Bureau of Land Management’s Adopt-A-Burro program. You can still see photos of the pair on the program’s website — Hualapai wearing a pack saddle and Taylor leading her into the desert.

“We literally are hiking every day of the year,” he said.

They’ve even been down the Grand Canyon together. Taylor built Hualapai a large, lush enclosure behind his home in Mesa. They have a real connection, Taylor said, the kind he’s never had with a horse.

“We’ve kind of built up almost a pet-like relationship,” he said.

But that’s not the kind of relationship most of the state’s burros have with the public.

On any given day, hundreds of miles north near Oatman, motorists will be honking and yelling at a gaggles of bored-looking burros, standing in the middle of the highway. Mohave County Supervisor Steven Moss has seen it often. Moss said burros are causing traffic accidents in his district every year. And you’ve probably heard about his idea about how to change it.

“Basically hunt them,” he said.

To be fair, he wasn’t being serious.

“It would be a felony,” he explained. “I’d go to jail, and I have no intention of going to any jail over any burros.” 

But the proposal did what Moss wanted — it got attention, all over the country. It’s probably why earlier this year Moss found himself in Washington, D.C., in a meeting with the Senator John McCain, the BLM and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

“Everybody in that room agreed there was a problem,” he said.

Just not on how to solve it. State and federal agencies are expected to release a plan soon. For it to be effective, Moss said, it has to go beyond adoption. He hopes it adds fencing and sterilization.

Moss promises he actually likes the animals. “When Jesus fled Nazareth, his family was on a burro,” he said. “You know, it’s an animal which is closely tied to the rise of human civilization.”

But in Moss’ words, that shouldn’t mean burros get a “blank check.” The BLM said it spends more than $80 million a year nationwide on its wild horse and burro program. The majority of that goes into housing the animals as they wait to get adopted.

Down south in Florence, the BLM’s Roger Oyler was pushing a young burro with all his might into the back of trailer at a holding facility. It took about 15 minutes to go just a few feet.

But, “they’re really kind of loveable little animals when you get them calmed down,” Oyler said.

Turns out, they’re lovable and versatile. Oyler said they’re tough enough to act as guard animals, and sweet enough to help calm wild horses.

Dennis Park is the new owner of this little guy in the back of the trailer. Park said his friends ask him the same question.

“Well they say, ‘Why are you getting a burro?’ and I say, ‘Because I want one!’ Do I have to have a reason? I just want one.’ People want dogs and cats, and I’ve had all that,” Park said, smiling. “Well, I never had a cat. I don’t like cats.”

So Park is a dog person — and now a burro person, and just the kind of person the BLM is hoping to reach. Last year, the agency adopted out only 50 burros across the state.

You can learn more about the burro adoption program at the Bureau of Land Management website.

When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.