Thirsty Burros

The herds of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties are caught up in the most western of troubles: the need for water.

wild burros roam a residential neighborhood in moreno valley, california, where they graze on front lawns and shrubbery and drink water from sprinklers
Tod Seelie

Wild burros roam a residential neighborhood in Moreno Valley, California, where they graze on front lawns and shrubbery and drink water from sprinklers.

There isn’t anything like seeing a small herd of wild burros walk single file down a residential street. They stop to rest near the holiday decorations in a front yard, the heavily pregnant female burro standing watch over her two yearling females and two other relatives, who drink from the water trickling down the cement gutter.

“The Reche Vista girls,” my friend Dave Rogers says as we drive past them in his beat-up truck en route to the canyons near the community of Sunnymead Ranch, where somewhere between 800 and 1,000 burros—likely more—have become naturalized if endangered citizens of this part of inland Southern California.

For as long as I can remember, burros have flourished in the tangle of canyons, streams, springs, and ridges that twist between San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. These are places I’ve loved since I was a child hiking with my friends and younger brothers up into the Box Springs Mountains, where swarms of bees flew past us in dark and twisty streams, where we carried picks and axes to excavate mica that we believed to be gold. We dug into holes left decades earlier by other miners who’d used dynamite and possibly burros, always dreaming we’d see the elusive animals, which back then, in the 1970s, we’d hear bray only rarely, from a distant high ridge.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Rogers and his siblings grew up a few streets away from me, and we graduated from high school eight years apart. A longtime real estate agent in the inland area, Rogers lives on three acres he bought in 1999 in Reche Canyon, which was mostly undeveloped then, scattered with ranches. He has four horses, six longhorn cattle, and a fishpond where burros regularly drink nose to nose with his stock. To roam the back roads with Rogers is to hear a story of deep love for a hidden place, but also one of alarm at the rapid pace of change.

The Cahuilla called this area the Land of Many Hills, and deep in the hills are numerous springs. Burros—a type of donkey used as a pack animal—are members of the horse family, Equidae, originally from desert areas in Africa, introduced to the Southwest by Spanish settlers in the 1500s. Gold was discovered in the San Bernardino Valley in 1862, and miners brought burros to the area. Burros were hauling firewood in 1870 in Sonoratown, the Los Angeles barrio where miners from Mexico lived; burros were used by prospectors throughout Southern California in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and many escaped into the hills or were abandoned. For decades, herds have survived in remote areas of San Timoteo Canyon, Reche Canyon, and Pigeon Pass. But between the late 1980s, with the first Sunnymead Ranch development of 2,700 homes, and the recent construction of planned communities like Spring Mountain Ranch, much of the natural territory for the burros was erased. And now, the animals are facing an even more direct threat: humans themselves.

As recent droughts make springs disappear, herds are wandering out of the canyons into the cities. Burros are on the sidewalks of my childhood street in Riverside and on the UC campus there. They drink from sprinklers and search for water. John Welsh, the spokesperson for the Riverside County Department of Animal Services, explains the situation in Reche Canyon, for instance. “Some [residents] see the burros as a nuisance. They don’t want wild animals trampling their landscaping. Burros have been shot at with guns, with arrows, but most of the danger is drivers who don’t slow down.”

one of several signs on the area’s major roads that have been erected to help prevent burros from being struck by vehicles
One of several signs on the area’s major roads that have been erected to help prevent burros from being struck by vehicles.
Tod Seelie

The main thoroughfares—where commuters speed up to 80 miles per hour—are where burros are most often struck by vehicles. On December 15 of last year, at 11:20 p.m., a car hit a burro crossing the two-lane Redlands Boulevard, in an area known as Big Horn Canyon. When that driver moved his vehicle off the road and called 911, Jacqueline Morgan, a 52-year-old from Moreno Valley, stopped her 2007 Chevy Trailblazer, angling it to protect the dying burro from other cars. She was standing by her driver’s-side door when a third vehicle hit her. The burro had already died. Morgan died four days later. Other tragedies include six burros killed on the San Timoteo Canyon railroad tracks in November and unknown humans shooting 42 burros near Halloran Springs in 2019. Rogers has stood at the end of his driveway and listened to a herd braying for hours, mourning a burro that had been killed.

As with so many other western troubles, this one is really about water. “They aren’t starving—they need water,” Rogers says. “In spring, they’ll eat wild oats and filaree. But in summer, they need water.”

Rita Gutierrez, formerly the commander of field services for Riverside County’s animal services, now retired, agrees: “Right before we get the winter rains, that’s when the herds come down into the neighborhoods. If they stayed up in the hills…they’d be safe.”

When I talk with Gutierrez, who went to junior high with me, about how far into the cities the herds are coming, she offers a hopeful statement: “Look, a Reche Canyon resident told me once that as soon as she would see the velvet growing out on the hills, the burros would be out of harm’s way.”

I recall one of Rogers’s stories, about a burro named Buddy. Three years ago, the young jack showed up on his land with a fractured rear leg. Rogers put him in a horse corral, called a vet, and for eight months helped Buddy heal. Then one day, the jack walked away. He now returns weekly, Rogers said. “He brings his girlfriends to visit. The other day, 12 of them showed up, six jennies and their yearlings and one baby about two days old. There’s something so innocent and sweet about a baby burro. It’s that little bit of Mother Nature we get to connect with.”

In the fall, I had seen Buddy guiding eight females across Reche Canyon Road, near the flashing Burro Crossing sign the county had installed years ago. And in December, after my visit with Rogers, I saw Buddy there again. It had rained, and the needles of green wild oats and foxtail grass had already begun to shimmer on the slopes, the velvet of survival.•

Susan Straight’s latest novel, Mecca, was a finalist for a 2022 Kirkus Prize.
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