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.

ù You can see the changes in a horse's diet through the rings and colors of its hooves. The color also changes when the animal is running a fever, says Robinson, who contends he "could talk for days about horses' feet."

ù It costs $85 to castrate a horse.

If an ass was good enough for the Son of God to ride on into Jerusalem, then it's certainly good enough to transport Carla Gabbard to work at Walgreens.

She's down from Flagstaff to adopt a burro, and is out sizing up the prospects. Not only does she want one for transportation to work--"because the state and the county and the city won't fix the road"--but she wants a pet. "They're much more affectionate than the mustangs. I have a friend who adopted a burro, and within two weeks, she was nudging on him."

The combination of intelligence, physical strength and a tranquil nature has made the burro an integral part of the History of Man. (Don't forget donkeys; they're really just asses by another name.) And Kelly Grissom, wild horse and burro specialist, is just the man to tell the tale.

I meet him over by the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros booth, where they're selling burro sun visors, Mane 'n' Tail conditioner, and tee shirts that say "I Have a Cute Little Ass."

"How it got started is back in Asia they had an Asian wild ass, and it was more like a zebra in its temperament. They really didn't gentle down," Grissom drawls. "The Egyptians coming down the trade routes'd see these guys dragging these Asian asses around, and they said, 'Well, we've got something that looks just about like that over back in Egypt.' So they started pulling 'em out and domesticating them.

"Then the Asians got to lookin' and said, 'Well, goddamn, their burros, they work a lot better than ours.' But that Asian ass--the onager, it's called--was the first domesticated type."
"Was that the famous Jesus ass?" I wonder.
"No, the Jesus ass was the African," he tells me. "About 9,000 years ago, they began domesticating the Asian ass. About 6,000 years ago, about the time Egypt was really cooking, making its way into the trade routes, the African ass was on the scene. It's a much more gentle, docile animal. So by the time 2,000 years ago and Jesus happened, the Asian ass was pretty much replaced."
I hearken to page seven from the Advisor:
In considering why you want [an ass], you are really asking if your reasons are valid ones and if you want [asses] for themselves or mainly for your own satisfaction.

By Kelly's way of thinking, either motivation for ass ownership is valid.
"In Arizona, people want them mainly for pets; they're really cool animals," he gushes. "When they gentle down, they're like a dog. They sing to you when you're leaving in the morning, they're happy to see you come home, so they sing again. I'd say they're even more intelligent than a horse. Horses lose it with fear, they panic and fear takes over.

"When a burro gets into a situation they can't understand, they stand and think about it. People say they're stubborn; that's not it. They're cautious."

Arizona has not always looked upon wild burros with such a gentle eye. When undomesticated herds appeared near the Grand Canyon in the last half of the 19th century, the government, goaded by irate ranchers and landowners, took to shooting and poisoning the little buggers. They've wound up in everything from dog food to tamales.

Even as late as December 1, 1943, right here in Tucson at the Pioneer Hotel, the ultimate utility animal was served as the main course. At a Rotary meeting. Seems wacky Rotarian funsters delivered the meat to the chef, telling him it was venison; the ring leader, UofA prof J.F. McKale, speaks in a letter published posthumously:

"I had the burro ears wrapped up in a newspaper, and after the meal, standing next to the nearest exit, I announced what they had been eating, and threw in the two ears."
Gosh--bet the boys got a good chuckle out of that one!

It is Saturday, and I'm back at the rodeo grounds for the lottery that will determine which lucky person will return home with a burro to call his own. There are more people here than yesterday, but things are quiet. I was expecting tension, excitement, swearing, maybe even fistfights over the prized asses. Instead, a small boy in a Jim Carrey Riddler shirt runs by, screaming, "We got the one we wanted!"

This is Joanne Humphrey's third try at adopting; her number is 45, meaning that 44 others will get to thin the burro herd before she gets a shot. Not great. She gazes hopefully into the burro pen. Joanne has a bright red cowboy hat, a bracelet set with a bear claw, and a ten-acre farm where she raises sharlynn melons. A melon of which I know nothing.

"They're a cross between a cantaloupe and a honeydew," she informs me with pride. "They've got a white, fleshy meat and they're absolutely wonderful."
Joanne, who already has a mule, says her place is just aching for a burro.
"I'm looking to get one of the little burros, and if I do, he'll basically be a lawn mower."
But the choice beasts are going fast, and by the time 45 comes over the PA, it looks like her lawn will be submitting to a Black & Decker.

"I'm going to pass, because someone already got the ones I wanted," she says reluctantly. "I'll come back next year. I'm a little bit disappointed, but, you know, another day."
She saunters off before I can console her with a brief passage from the Advisor, page 19:

If you are determined you really prefer to adopt for solid reasons, you are going to have to be firm in your convictions and keep trying even if rebuffed.

Oh, well.
Though the morning is young, horse trailers are being loaded, banging shut above whinnied protests. The herds are growing smaller; all burros will be spoken for by the end of the day. Over at the 4-H booth, they are selling--guess what--burros for breakfast. The smell of the cooking meat comes wafting my way. It's wonderful, enticing, a bit different. I walk on over past the living burros as they stare, thinking about something.--Peter Gilstrap

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