Donkeys have been loyal beasts of burden for 5,000 years, yet they still don't get a lot of respect.
In the wild, burro herds are a nuisance. In captivity, they can be mistreated. But in recent years, donkey sanctuaries have sprung up across the country. The largest among them is Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, outside of San Angelo, Texas, where the air periodically erupts with the unpeaceable sounds of donkey braying.
Just like its hee-haw, so much about the donkey is species specific. Their temperament — intelligent, cautious and playful — is unique in the equine world. Males and females are called jacks and jennies. And they're widely misunderstood.
"[People] assume they're stubborn. They assume they're stupid," says Mark Meyers, the founder and executive director of Peaceful Valley. "So there's a very negative connotation out there, the Bugs Bunny — turn into a donkey when he does something stupid."
Meyers has become America's foremost donkey defender.
Bored with the electrical contracting business, he and his wife, Amy, began adopting abused and unwanted donkeys at their ranchette outside Los Angeles. By 2005, they had accumulated 25 animals, and he decided to sell his companies and protect donkeys full time. They moved out to hot, flat, west Texas seven years ago.
When Meyers — a burly, white-bearded Buddhist — walks into a pen, he's mobbed by love-hungry donkeys.
"These donkeys here are some of our ambassador donkeys," he says, patting two affectionate beasts named Buddy and Houdini. "We do public outreach with them. We're headed to the Topeka Zoo in a few weeks to show the people how cool donkeys can be."
At any given time, his paddocks are home to 1,000 donkeys. Together with a network of sanctuaries scattered around the country, Peaceful Valley has grown into the largest donkey rescue organization in the world — sheltering some 3,000 total animals. Half are wild burros removed from public lands; half were abandoned, abused or neglected.
But the idea is not to run a home for old donkeys; the idea is to find them new homes. The ranch gives up more than 400 donkeys a year for adoption because their new owners say they make great pets.
"Like a really smart dog"
"Hi, Buck ... you want a cookie?" calls out Melissa Schurr in a singsong voice. The equine dentist approaches her 21-year-old spotted jack, Buckaroo, on the ranch where they live outside of Sacramento, Calif.
Meyers helped her adopt Buckaroo, who was a wild ass in western Arizona in his youth.
"Donkeys are very dog-like creatures. They're loyal, they're sweet. It's like a really smart dog — a border collie — and the best horse you ever had, wrapped up in one animal," Schurr says.
"We've had to change how we shut our gates. He'll watch you and figure out how to open gates," she adds, rubbing the insides of Buckaroo's ears. In response, he closes his eyes and nuzzles her shoulder. "We have to latch everything. You can't just tie it. He'll untie it. They're very smart."
The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are more than 13,000 wild burros on public lands in five Western states — but thousands more are uncounted. (Some semantics: donkeys are domesticated; burros are wild.)
Feral populations can become a nuisance. Burros foul springs, overgraze, trample the ground and drive away native species.
Kevin Goode, a special assistant at Texas Parks & Wildlife, says in the outback, burros are wild.
"They are very skittish," Goode says. "They are very aggressive, both towards humans and other animals. They don't play well with others."
In the old days, people shot bothersome burros. Today, land managers typically tolerate them until the herd gets so big it has to be removed or culled. Captured wild burros then have to be gentled up before they can be adopted.
Later this month, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue will send trailers, wranglers and herding dogs to Ajo, Ariz., to round up some 500 donkeys that have wandered over from Mexico onto public grazing land. Crossing the border may have saved their lives.
The U.K.-based animal rights group Donkey Sanctuary reports that Mexico is one of 21 countries that slaughters donkeys and exports their hides to China, which uses them to make a popular traditional medicine.
"Quite simply, supply has not kept up with demand," says Donkey Sanctuary campaigns manager Simon Pope. "Wild populations of donkeys around the world are being looked at and sized up as potential supplies to feed into this trade."
Mark Meyers and other animal rights activists report that more donkeys and burros are being sold to "kill buyers" in the U.S., and exported to Mexican slaughterhouses to feed the insatiable global skin market.
"China has increased the demand for donkey hides to 4 million a year," he says. "They've decimated their own donkey herds. They've decimated several African nations' donkey herds. So now they're turning to South America and Mexico."
So the people at Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue believe their work is more urgent than ever.