Saving wild burros in their native habitat
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2007:
OLANCHA, California–Wild Burro Rescue founder Diana Chontos
has in common with the film ogre Shrek that she lives in a stone
house in the middle of nowhere, is a seldom-seen legend, and puts
saving her asses ahead of the comfort of a damsel in frequent
Among the differences are that Shrek memorably saved one ass,
in his 2001 screen debut. Chontos had already saved hundreds,
beginning in 1984. Shrek lives in a swamp, with abundant water.
Chontos lives in the high desert near parched Owens Lake, drained in
the early-20th century water diversion scandal dramatized by Jack
Nicholson in the 1974 film Chinatown.
Chontos herself could play the damsel in distress, possibly
with significantly greater fundraising success, but the role never
[Contact Wild Burro Rescue c/o P.O. Box 10, Olancha, CA
“Kiss our asses,” the Wild Burro Rescue bumper stickers proclaim.
Like the resident wild burros themselves, Chontos and Wild
Burro Rescue are wiry, independent, lean and enduring. Hard times
have been frequent, prosperity just a rumor. Much of the time
Chontos has only one or two hardy volunteers for help, or none at
all. She has no paid staff, barely managing to pay herself grocery
A comparatively small investment of under $350,000 could pay
off the mortgage on the spectacularly scenic 140-acre sanctuary and
all other debts, drill a reliable well, supply adequate
electricity, add barns enough to give all of the burros shelter (if
they choose to use it) and fix up buildings on the property that
could accommodate visiting volunteers.
Many other sanctuaries in southern California raise $350,000
in a couple of months, taking advantage of proximity to Hollywood
and the Silicon Valley.
But Wild Burro Rescue is well off the beaten track, almost
off of any track at all, and while Shrek was at a loss when asked to
feed a donkey, Shrek might know more about organizing a celebrity
gala. What fortune blew Wild Burro Rescue’s way was a howling wind
storm at Halloween 2003 that tumbled a four-equine trailer like a
cardboard box, wrecking it. An inebriated volunteer–no longer
associated with Wild Burro Rescue–later wrecked the larger of the
two WBR water tankers. The smaller tanker–with a leaky
tank–collects water for the burros several times a day from a
recreational vehicle park whose owner is sympathetic toward animals,
and allows Chontos to use her showers.
The RV park is near the turn-off from Route 395 to Wild Burro
Rescue. A dirt road takes visitors across the Los Angeles Aqueduct
to a narrower dirt road mined with boulders so large that truckloads
of fill would be needed if they were bulldozed out.
Fenced burro compounds stand alongside the lower part of the
access road. More burro compounds and wooden former bunkhouses
surround the shaded stone headquarters. The headquarters gets some
electricity from solar panels and batteries, but the property has no
refrigeration and no running water other than winter runoff from the
East of the Inyo National Forest and Sierra Nevada mountains,
just west of Death Valley, the sanctuary now harbors about 180 wild
burros rescued from National Park Service land where they would
otherwise have been shot, miscellaneous mules and horses taken in
from domestic situations, about 20 dogs and cats who have found
their way there or have been dumped nearby, and wildlife including
black bears, pumas, bobcats, coyotes, and sidewinder rattlesnakes.
The wild predators and rattlesnakes are more a threat to
human intruders than the predator-and-snake-savvy wild burros. Few
predators will risk a burro kick. Snakes avoid being trampled.
Foals might become puma prey if Chontos allowed breeding, but–as in
the wild–the jacks and jennies are live in separate herds. Many of
the jacks are gelded. The only young equines on the premises are the
foals of animals who were pregnant when recently rescued.
The sanctuary site was previously a hunting ranch. Hunting and
shooting of any kind have been prohibited since Wild Burro Rescue
bought the site in 2000. Meat is not allowed on the premises,
“Talking to someone about myself beyond my life with burros
seems abstract to me now,” Chontos mused in 1993, as one of the
first sanctuarians ANIMAL PEOPLE profiled. “My life has become
burros and their survival. I am a daughter of the pioneers of
Washington,” she said, “and continue to live by many of the same
values as my great-grandparents, except that during my childhood I
found the practice of slaughtering and eating animals abhorrent. As
soon as I possibly could,” she recalled, “I became a vegetarian.”
Her first animal rescue, she said, came 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
Chontos and her former husband founded Wild Burro Rescue at
Onalaska, Washington, in 1984. They began by adopting four burros
from Death Valley National Park. Four years later, they moved to a
larger site in the foothills north of Mount St. Helens.
“We had a dream: to walk away into the mountains and not
return,” Chontos said. “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.”
Setting out in July 1990 on a planned two-year trek, the
founders participated in the rescue of 123 mustangs in Oregon, then
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 saving the burros and taking them to our home in
Washington, or continuing our trek, we saved the burros.”
The California Desert Protection Act in 1994 transferred tens
of thousands of acres of land from the Bureau of Land Management to
the National Park Service, with catastrophic effect for 1,400 wild
burros in the Mojave Desert plus 500 in Death Valley. On BLM land,
the burros were safe from slaughter, under the 1971 Wild and Free
Ranging Horse and Burro Protection Act. On National Park Service
land, they were deemed an “alien species,” slated for “direct
reduction,” a euphemism for shooting them.
Wild Burro Rescue prevented the anticipated burro massacre by
negotiating annual burro captures that kept the population from
increasing. Relocating from southern Washington to southern
California became essential to sustaining the operation.
While Wild Burro Rescue has succeeded in saving many burros
to live out their natural lives in semi-native habitat, Chontos has
yet to achieve her greater goal of persuading wildlife policy-makers
to appreciate North American wild burros as a uniquely adapted
subspecies, some twice the size of the Spanish domestic donkeys from
whom they are descended, closer in habits to zebras.
Approximately half of the former wild burro range in the U.S.
is now closed to burros, Chontos points out. Fewer wild burros
remain in the whole U.S. than existed in southern California alone
circa 35 years ago.
Chontos notes that bighorn sheep hunters are especially hostile
toward wild burros, as perceived rivals of sheep. While burro
management is not a money-maker for wildlife agencies, the
Foundation for North American Wild Sheep in 2002 auctioned just 20
bighorn sheep hunting permits for more than $2 million.
93549; 760-764-2136; fax 240-244-8498;