Death Valley Junction. A hard Mojave wind swirls dust between the feet of the wild burros. They face away from the wind, but look over their shoulders and eye us nervously. We are slow in our approach, so as not to disturb them; they have been in captivity less than 24 hours, and will adjust to humans slowly.
These burros roamed the sere deserts of Death Valley National Park, until Gene Chontos and his crew from Wild Burro Rescue captured them. Now they will not be wild burros, but pet burros. But had Gene and his crew not captured them, they might have been dead burros; the National Park Service biologists had marked 20 some of them for shooting this year. Wild Burro Rescue is being allowed to remove them instead.
Closer to the pens, Gene sees a dog wandering through the jack’s (male burro) pen. He yells the dog away and turns to two western-dressed men leaning against the fence watching, “They’ll kill that dog if he gets too close. They’ll kill him in a minute.” He seems to expect disagreement, but gets none. The dog is caught and thrown in the cab of a horse-trailer tow rig.
“You the one catchin’ these burros over’n the park?” says one.
“I’m your man,” says Gene proudly. “We saved these from the gun yesterday and they’ll be more next year.”
I expect the cowboys to begin making negative comments about animal lovers, but not what happens next. One of the men reaches into his pocket. He takes out a twenty-dollar bill and heads for Gene.
“I’d like to give you this to help buy feed.”
Gene looks surprised, but is particularly pleased to have a local contribute to his cause. He offers to make the man a member of Wild Burro Rescue, but the man declines, “Don’t bother with that,” he says, “I’ll catch you here and give you some more next year.” The men get in the truck and pull away with the large horse trailer. They wave and smile.
“Now that was a class act,” says Gene. “Gave me twenty dollars like that, and I half expected trouble.” He points to the horse trailer fading into the distance. “Man loves horses, so he identifies with what we’re doing with these burros.”
Gene points out that some of the jennies (female burros) are with foal. He expects that some of them will be pregnant now too, and wants to take one of them home for his wife.
A foal lays down and stirs up some puffs of dust. His jenny moves to cast her shadow to protect him from the noonday sun. The jacks jostle for position at the fence near the jennies. Gene thinks there are some jennies in heat. He’ll have to watch the jacks, though the fence looks strong to me.
We take some pictures of the burros and watch them for awhile. Gene points out how thin yet muscled they are, and how healthy they look. There are two domestic burros in a pen beside them; the difference is marked; the wild burros coats are bright and sleek, the others matted and dull. I wonder how long they will retain their wild beauty, how soon will they begin to look like the domestic ones, after they themselves become domesticated.
We follow Gene back to a small house he stays in while preparing for the roundup. The house for him, and motel rooms for others of his crew are provided free by Marta Becket, who runs the hotel and owns much of Death Valley Junction. Gene shows us a Wild Burro Rescue newsletter and tells us more about how the nonprofit started, and how the roundup is conducted.
He grew more animated as he described the roundup and the growing strength of the animal rights movement, and his work with the burros. He has apparently attracted much attention to the effort; this year’s roundup, conducted yesterday, was on national television today, and the non-profit raised $50,000 last year, as opposed to $6,000 their first year, the year before.
It takes a lot of money to catch those gray long-eared guys; the roundup involved several volunteers in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and a $400 dollar an hour helicopter to herd the burros. But there seem to be plenty of people, like the man at the fence, willing to finance the operation, so there will be another roundup next year to save more burros from the gun.
The Park Service says the desert ecosystem is being damaged by the burros preventing use by other native species, and so they must be removed, by shooting if necessary. Gene disputes this, saying the burros have been here since the Spanish arrived 400 years ago, and that they are now a part of that ecosystem.
For now the Park Service will allow Wild Burro Rescue to save the number marked for shooting each year. The non-profit will then attempt to adopt out the burros to good homes. It seems a workable solution.
Gene wears a T-shirt with burros on it and the words, Wild Burro Rescue and a look of joy on his face. He’s a man with a mission, a happy man. The thing I will always remember about Gene Chontos, is his absolute conviction that the burros must be saved, and his complete dedication to it. When someone displays such conviction, they deserve to be heard.