Burros Are NOT Horses (spotlight)

Burros are not horses. You may simply shake your head and question why an article discussing this fact is even being written.

Many people that adopt a wild burro are never told that simple statement by BLM. In fact, BLM themselves use population modeling designed for wild horses in their own processes for wild burro herds leading to expanding falsehoods and increasing removals (more here).

This simple statement becomes more important to repeat when we look at animal husbandry.

Burros, a personal look at the subject of burro health and why the distinctions are vital to understand, by WHE burro subject matter expert, Laurie Ford

I am not a newcomer to burros and in 35 years have only lost one jack due to a health problem. Six years ago, I adopted my first wild burro, Duane. After a few months he developed an eye infection and was put on antibiotics.

His eyes cleared up, but shortly afterwards he literally dropped dead while coming in for breakfast. The closest diagnosis my vet could make was that the infection had infiltrated his lungs and heart. I was terrified to tell the BLM what had taken place. I have also heard similar stories from other burro adopters.

A few years later I rescued 3 pregnant wild burro jennies.  Today only one of the foals born is still alive. Of the other two born one was a “dummy baby” who died, and the other died within three months after thousands was spent trying to save her. Despite being treated by a well-known veterinarian hospital the cause of death was never determined.

The burros noted above all had something in common:  these adult burros experienced traumatic capture and relocation that exposed them to extreme stress and pathogens uncommon to their immune systems.

Screengrab from 3000mm lens. Observation from the (primarily) burro roundup at Blue Wing was nearly impossible to see what was happening and being able to describe animal health for burros was an exercise in futility. 

The entire concept behind observing wild burro roundups is that the public can witness any mistreatment or abuse taking place and take steps in open public process to address the issue. Unfortunately, much of the harm that comes to our burros is not visible or ever exposed – especially that which involves their health.

During roundups small numbers of burros are gathered, often over miles, and then herded together towards the trap site where they are held in a “holding pattern” – conveniently located in an obscure canyon or behind a hill – where groups are then separated out, pushed down the trap chutes onto the trailers and then whisked off to temporary holding. Because burros are difficult to move along – ignoring the helicopter or stopping to graze – the pilot tends to become frustrated and more forceful. Single, or small groups of burros, break away ensuing an aggressive chase by wranglers that turns into a roping event. These incidents are usually out of the viewer’s sight.

At the end of the day the BLM wipes their hands and breathes a sigh of relief because the opportunity to observe has disappeared along with the last load of burros. But the threat of harm has not.

Years ago, the BLM acknowledged the immune systems of burros were unfamiliar with pathogens outside of HMA, and that the problem was exacerbated by stress, they claimed that there was really nothing they could do.

And that is exactly what they did – nothing, until the decision was made to use helicopters, rather than the traditional bait and trap method, to conduct gathers – a decision they knew would increase stress levels and the risk of corresponding illnesses for the burros.

And, despite admitting the gathering of wild burros in the fall/winter reduces the risk of heat stress these helicopter gathers were scheduled for spring/summer during the months when wild horse round ups are halted due to foaling season. This void in the roundup schedule has easily been filled with burro gathers as the BLM continues to claim they have no foaling season. (note: BLM does not do helicopter roundups of wild horses from the last day of February until the first day of July claiming an overly broad assertion that this is foaling season. But they routinely schedule helicopter capture of burros during these exact months claiming that there is no foaling season for burros and therefore do not have to stop during the hottest months of the year.)

Burros typically live in pairs, or small social groups with strong bonds and limited exposure to other burros. This seclusive existence, in combination with an increasingly fragmented habitat and excessive removals, has led to limited gene pools and weaker immune systems within the remaining burros on the range.

It has been well documented that the combination of stress and capture, followed by relocation to overcrowded holding facilities and then on to adoption events, further suppresses the immune system as they continue being exposed to pathogens and corresponding diseases without the necessary antibodies to protect them. The risk of awakening, or reactivating, dormant strains of the herpesvirus – which may contribute to both pre-gather and post-gather clinical disease – never ceases during this time for the burros.

In 2020, a study was released by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine that assessed the pathogen exposure status and corresponding antibody levels of feral donkeys captured from Death Valley National Park in California – a population deemed to be comparable to our own wild burros. The study found the burros to be mostly naïve and likely susceptible to common pathogens such as equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1),  equine influenza virus (EIV), and West Nile virus when removed from the wild and there appeared to be an increase in pathogen detection when relocated and introduction to long-term holding facilities.

It was further determined that the burros were more vulnerable than horses to EIV and when complicated by additional bacterial infections, would cause cough, nasal discharge, and lethargy which, if ignored, could result in death. In addition, 65% of the burros were put at high risk for infection with EHV-1 –   commonly associated with life threatening respiratory illnesses, neurological diseases and hyperlipemia.

Exposing pregnant jennies to extreme stress and pathogens she isn’t immune to, can impact the health and survival of the foal in utero and after birth and EHV-1 infection during gestation may also result in late-term abortions.

Bonnie Barr, an Equine Internal Medicine Specialist, verified that stress can affect fetal development and maturity, delivery, or the peripartum period and may result in severe neonatal illness.

The BLM does not document the survival rate of foals born in holding and there is no record keeping for those born to jennies after adoption. While these foals may initially appear healthy – as in my case – that does not guarantee survival.

Blue Wing Burros, NV

During the 2016 Sinbad burro roundup, and shortly afterwards in holding facilities, 26 burros died with five additional burros later found dead on the range. When 10 of 13 were autopsied 2 uncommon asinine herpesvirus strains   were consistently identified in lung tissues of the affected donkeys who also suffered from moderate-to-severe interstitial fibrosing pneumonia.

According to a Journal of Veterinarian Diagnostic Investigation (2021) The stress of capture along with concurrent disease such as parasitism, bacterial pneumonia in some cases, or exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust or ammonia, may have caused reactivation of the virus, thus contributing to the development of pulmonary fibrosis.

Many adopters are unfamiliar with burros and their care. Because burros are so stoic, and are often turned out in a field with other livestock to fend for themselves, subtle signs of distress or illness tend to go unnoticed until it is too late.

After reviewing several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses I noticed large numbers of burros adopted through AIP never being titled.

During this time, the AIP was paying adopters $500 up front and the other $500 upon being titled so why would someone not title their burro to receive the final payment?

One FOIA, covering 400 burros over a 30-day period, revealed 30% were never titled.

Another FOIA revealed 21.2 % of burros adopted through a single field office in 2020 were never titled either – mainly by first time adopters who made up half of the 40 applicants involved. The other 20 applicants were largely repeat adopters who adopted 4 and either reported a death or only applied for 3 to be titled at the end of the year.  Why would the BLM not question an adopter, or even do a compliance check, when this was the case?

From experience I can tell you first time adopters are more inclined to not report a death due to a fear of the government and unfamiliarity with the BLM therefore; they do not apply for title. It is the repeat adopters, who are more familiar with the BLM, that tend to report a death citing “found dead in field” or “failed to thrive.”

Because the deaths of so many burros take place after the initial roundup (and out of sight) they are rarely identified unless a FOIA has been submitted to obtain the information. Even then, nothing ever seems to develop that addresses the findings.

According to a 2007 Wild Horse & Burro Capture Status Report obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by American Horse Defense Fund, 12% of the burros rounded up in March of 2007 were dead within six months of the gather –  a far cry from the 1-2% BLM is so fond of sharing with the public.

And, despite numerous studies calling for further research the BLM continues to fund only those projects that support their current agenda to reduce the national burro population to 2900.

According to A Pilot Serosurvey for Selected Pathogens in Feral Donkeys (2020) . Further work is needed to understand the incidence of clinical disease from these pathogens in these populations upon removal from the wild, and co-mingling due the apparently naïve nature of these donkeys to common pathogens.

The stress purposely inflicted upon our wild burros is killing them, both on and off the range. It is time that the BLM acknowledges the deadly impact stress can have on animals as it was in Florida after Hurricane Ian when hundreds of dairy cows died – many of whom survived the actual hurricane but dropped dead afterwards as a result of the fright and stress they had experienced.

It is also time that they adhere to the recommendation made in 2020 by the BLM Advisory Board that the differences in horses and burros be identified and that the BLM should expand the programs capabilities to manage burro populations humanely and appropriately based on these differences.

WHE is working hard to create desperately needed changes to the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policy (CAWP). Those changes include a section specifically addressing burros.

WHE is working hard to gain Herd Management Area Plans (HMAP), a site-specific plan, to manage each area wild horses and/or burros exist. Removal is not management. This work includes active litigation at Blue Wing, highlighting the plight of burros.

Help keep us in the fight.

Categories: Lead