DIGGING BURROS

There were 15 of them standing together in the sun. In the dust and dirt, penned up yet blas‚ about the situation, nowhere to go. The flies were taking advantage of this, landing on their noses and clustering about their eyes. But those eyes--gleaming black eight balls of calm and wisdom--15 pairs of them stared out at me as I stood there in the same sun on the other side of the fence.

I was at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds for the fourth annual Wild Horse and Burro Adoption, and so were these 15 feral burros-to-go. Direct descendants of the beasts belonging to Western pioneers, Native Americans and miners and, before that, Spanish conquistadors. Perhaps even distant relatives to the revered asses of the Old Testament. As I pondered the herd, ears of burro twitching automatically as they had for centuries, my thoughts traveled back to the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:17):

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass. . . .

And to think that one of these living, breathing, kicking Biblical artifacts could be yours--covet no more!--for a mere $75, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management. More than 100,000 horses and burros have found homes since 1973, when the program to combat overpopulation and remove herds from areas of forest depletion began. Yet I knew precious little about the whole notion of adoption.

Luckily, I brought along The Adoption Advisor by Joan McNamara, and, by substituting the word "ass" for "children," gleaned pretty much what I needed to know. I opened to Chapter 1:

You are about to make one of the most important decisions of your life. Not just the decision to adopt or not to adopt, although that is surely an important decision. But first you must decide if you truly want to take the plunge into [ass ownership], and if you are willing to devote a large chunk of your life, or lives, to a growing [ass] who will demand inordinate amounts of your time, your energies and your love.

I looked up at the animals, they looked back at me. The flies continued to buzz.

There are about 50 people and one small oscillating desk fan in a hot, cramped room at the rodeo grounds. They are here for the Friday morning Seminar for Adopters, squeezed into wooden church pews that line the walls, propped in the corners, hunkered down on the floor. Lean Arizona ranch-types with tan lines that end at mid-forehead where the feed caps begin. Fellows with ponytails and scraggly beards. Neat, clean couples wearing pastel-colored shirts with garish Indian patterns. Grandpas with proud guts and grandchildren in clothes stained with snacks bought from the 4-H booth outside. And there is Mike Robinson before us, a local veterinarian with 14 years of service; he radiates expertise and kindness. He's got a slide show (after almost every slide clicks up, he says, "Now why did I put this one in?" Then proceeds to decipher every possible aspect, pro or con, of everything contained in the photo--animal, foliage, fencing, water trough--as if he were an assassination expert dissecting images of the grassy knoll).

Robinson is going to tell us what we need to know about caring for wild horses and burros. Which is a good thing, as I know even less about these animals than I do about adoption.

And the Advisor has me concerned . . .
[An ass] with special needs may be [an ass] with a medical problem; a physical, emotional, or mental handicap; or [an ass] with easily correctable problems, such as crooked teeth or a lisp. Generally, such [asses] require special attention. . . .

Dr. Mike assures us that the animals up for adoption not only have been examined, but tested for disease; they've been immunized and wormed. I learn a lot of other stuff, as well, like:

ù Just one or two leaves of oleander will kill a horse.
ù There's a place in California that sells microscopic wasps that'll eat fly larvae from horse and burro dung; this is very helpful in controlling fly infestation. ù Jimson weed will make an animal go crazy; Dr. Mike knew of "a horse last year that ate some and tried to bite his owner's lips off."

ù Most cactus is no problem to a horse or burro, but a needle from a barrel cactus is bad news. Once he saw one enter a horse's neck, and emerge from the other side two years later.

ù Mesquite beans are great food if they're dry, but when eaten wet, they'll "stop an animal up like cement."

ù A horse can only breathe through its nose, so if it's bitten by a rattlesnake and its nose starts to swell up, you need to put a hair curler or a piece of hose in the nostril so the animal can breathe. Dr. Mike once went to a farm where a horse had been bitten, and the woman there, too cheap to cut her hose, had 50 feet of it stuck in the horse's nose.

ù A burro or a horse can get sunburned on skin covered with white patches of hair. The remedy: sunscreen.

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