Gene and Diana Chontos: Helping the tough and stubborn

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1993:

“Talking to someone about myself beyond my life
with burros seems abstract to me now,” Diana Chontos told
ANIMAL PEOPLE, “since my life has become burros and
their continued survival. I am a daughter of the pioneers of
Washington, and continue to live by many of the same val-
ues as my great-grandparents, except that during my child-
hood I found the practice of slaughtering and eating animals
abhorent. As soon as I possibly could, I became a vegetari-
an.” Her first animal rescue may have been at age 13,
when, “I rode my horse, galloping bareback, between a
gun-happy bounty hunter and a beautiful coyote I had been
watching as she caught and ate grasshoppers.”
Gene Chontos, Diana’s partner of 18 years, came
to animal rescue later in life, but no less dramatically. “I
was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1937,” he
remembers, “son to Hungarian immigrants. My father and
all his kin served the Bethlehem Steel Company as cheap
labor and resided in lower class poverty, replete with ethnic
prejudice, hatred, and violence. I escaped at age 17
through a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps.”

Working his way through college by tending bar, Gene
became “radicalized at U.C. Berkeley, 1966-1969,” while
earning an M.A. in criminology. “At that time,” he states,
“I decided to live a minimum impact lifestyle, which
included organic gardening, very basic living, protection
and enhancement of wildlife, and overall environmental
awareness. I dedicated my professional skills to helping
victims of personal abuse and institutionalized injustice.”
Like Diana, Gene became an outspoken ethical
vegetarian. He focused, however, upon assisting disadvan-
taged people. “My approach to psychotherapy and treat-
ment was uncompromisingly humanistic and democratic,”
he says. “My style was to establish emotional bonding with
people in crisis and to become their role model for change.
During this process I found it necessary to bring them into
my space and reality,” which for 15 years meant bringing
convicted felons home for extended visits, “in order for
them to experience a secure and healthy existence.”
Gene became directly involved with animals circa
1973-1977, while directing a unique rehabilitation project
for 30 drug abusers––20 men and 10 women––selected from
Washington state prisons. With a staff of 12, a budget of
$300,000, and a building provided by Western State
Hospital for the Mentally Ill, Gene “went all out” to
advance the idea of “treatment rather than punishment,
knowing,” he admits, “that it was a one-time only opportu-
nity, destined to produce a backlash of conservative puni-
tive response.” To his surprise, he discovered the best
treatment came through “the involvement of the staff’s pets
with the convict clientele. My two German shepherds,
Frank and Mellow, spent 80 hours a week with me at the
project, and soon the dogs and the convicts were insepara-
ble. Frank and Mellow were a team with enough intelli-
gence, curiosity, and energy to provide continuous and
often very dramatic interactions.”
Burros became part of the Chontos’ lives in 1985,
when Diana learned “of the mass removal of wild burros
from Death Valley National Park.” They began by adopting
four burros. Then, in 1988, Diana recalls, “We sold our
little lakeside cabin and moved to an undeveloped piece of
land in the Cascade foothills. We salvaged an old rotting
pole barn that was almost entirely covered with gigantic
blackberry vines, and we all moved in. We had a dream: to
walk away into the mountains and not return. We would
travel with our burros and people would be able to see what
wonderful animals these wild ones are. We could educate
people about the issues and prove to many that wild burros
should never be shot as a method of ‘management.’
“This we did.” In July 1990, Gene and Diana set
out with six burros on a two-year trek through the
Washington and Oregon high country. “People were forever
amazed,” Diana continues, “that our burros had once been
wild, that we had gentled them and that they loved us
beyond all reason, carried our belongings, and shared every
aspect of our lives with us.”
They spent the winter of 1990-1991 at The Wild
Horse Sanctuary near Mount Lassen, California, a 5,700-
acre facility maintained by Jim and Dianne Clapp––and that
changed their direction in more ways than one. “We spent
five months caring for and feeding over 200 mustangs,”
Diana explains. “We participated in the rescue of 123 mus-
tangs from Oregon, and looked after them all upon their
arrival at the sanctuary. We milked tamed mustangs to pro-
vide milk to rejected newborn foals,” since, “when young
mares are traumatized by capture and transporation, they
often are confused, especially if the foal is their first,” and
abandon their offspring. Losing some foals, both believe,
“was the hardest part of the entire trek experience.”
Ready to resume their trek toward New Mexico in
March 1991, Gene and Diana learned that “a herd of wild
burros had been rounded up and were being held in northern
Nevada, awaiting slaughter. Faced with the choice of sav-
ing the burros and taking them to our home in Washington,
or continuing our trek, we saved the burros, and committed
our lives to providing an option other than death for wild
burros living on non-protected lands.”
Though the Chontos’ rescue facility is modest, it
nonetheless took “much work and our entire savings,” Diana
admits. “We live in the barn with our burro friends, heat
with wood, grow a garden, can and dry much of our own
food, and have no electricity, running water, or other mod-
ern conveniences. Thirty-two of our 42 acres of forest, wet-
land, and pastures are protected as wildlife habitat.”
Now in planning, according to Gene, is a therapy
program involving burros and “children with special needs,”
modeled after a similar program administered by Elizabeth
Svendsen via the Donkey Sanctuary of England. A pioneer
of burro rescue, Svendsen “has rescued in excess of 4,000
donkeys,” Gene states. Many are used to assist children
who suffer from either physical or emotional disabilities.
Gene and Diana understand that no matter how
many burros they personally gentle and adopt out, and no
matter how many are gentled and adopted out by other res-
cue groups, many of them much better established, the wild
burro “problem” won’t be solved without a substantial
change of philosophy in Washington D.C.
“National Parks and wildlife preserves want them
totally removed from most areas,” Diana explains. “These
are the places we go to rescue burros. The Bureau of Land
Management has had its adoption budget cut dramatically
over the last several years, closed several adoption centers,
and cannot meet the demands of people who would like to
adopt a burro, due to lack of funding for the adoption pro-
gram. At the same time, many private land owners and
ranchers are shooting burros on sight!
“Death Valley National Park in California hires
specially trained rangers to shoot burros at six out of the nine
springs where they must go for water,” Diana continues.
“Last year, park rangers shot 40 burros within park bound-
aries, and they hope to increase the ‘direct reduction’ in
1993.” A few hours’ drive away, “Lake Mead Recreation
Area wants zero burro population,” to keep the animals from
causing shoreline erosion as they seek water.” She quotes
Lake Mead Recreation Area superintendent Alan O’Neill:
“We treat burros as an alien species. If the world
were perfect, we would prefer not to have any burros within
our recreation area.”
Diana believes that, “As many as 1,600 burros
could be affected in the Lake Mead area alone by upcoming
management decisions.” Burro eradications are also tenta-
tively scheduled for the Sheldon-Hart Mountain Antelope
Preserve, BLM lands in northern Nevada, “and many other
parks and preserves throughout the southwest. As many as
600 wild burros could be eradicated by passage of the
California Desert Protection Act,” Diane adds; though the
act would preserve habitat for native species, burros are con-
sidered non-native threats to some endangered plants. “This
bill is currently held up in the Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee,” she warns, “and will probably reach
the Senate floor in early 1993.” She asks concerned citizens
to appeal to their U.S. Senators on the burros’ behalf.
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