Considered invasive pests by some and friends by others, there are thousands of feral donkeys roaming the deserts of the American West. Burro management (like the management of wild horse populations) is a fraught and political issue with no clear solutions. Burrocracy, a 90-minute feature documentary, will explore controversies surrounding the burros and our ideas of wilderness, nature, and humanity's control over the environment.
Deep in the wilds of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, amidst arid lands where only sagebrush and Joshua trees grow, donkeys roam. Burros in California are a living reminder of the state's history and mining legacy. Are they invasive species or an integral part of the ecosystem? Descendants of working animals used by miners in the 1800s, these remarkably resilient creatures have lived many generations subsisting off the land, weathering the extreme temperatures of the desert, reproducing and surviving. As California's human population grows, there is ever more contact between donkeys and people, raising issues our forebears never had to confront.
Free-roaming burros cross invisible borders, invoking the laws and strictures of the human jurisdictions that lay claim to the land they wander through. Burrocracy explores the ethics and politics of wild burro management, highlighting the lives of the animals themselves, and the various humans who have opinions about their presence.
To curb unchecked population growth, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) periodically rounds up burros and takes them to huge holding pens where they wait for adoption or live out their days, at the expense of US taxpayers. The BLM is criticized by ranchers for not doing enough to curtail populations, and by organizations like the American Wild Horse Campaign, who believe the roundups are cruel and unnecessary. BLM gathers are often attended by activists from all sides of the spectrum.
BLM was tasked to manage wild horses and burros in 1971 as a result of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. We are in the business, if you will, of protecting the wild horses and burros on the rangelands that they inhabit. So we monitor them. We try to manage the populations. And then as part of that management, we have created our holding facilities and our adoption program, and all the adoption programs that have blossomed over the years from that.
It's the human burro interface, right? We have a population of people living where there's a population of burros. So we get complaints from the public about burros eating landscaping… [and] being on the roadside, providing a public safety issue.
—Amy Dumas, Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager, BLM, California
We've got close to 400 head of burros that came in this year off of different gathers. You gather more animals due to the drought and not having the water in the areas. As of May, we were at 82,003 — that was the estimated number that we had. The herd management areas were designed to have just a shade under 27,000 animals on the range to have enough feed and water for them to fit into the ecosystem. So we're three times over that. We need to find homes for them. So we've got to keep the whole cycle going.
—Grant Lockie, Facility Mgr., Wild Horse & Burro Corrals, BLM—Ridgecrest, CA
The impact of the animals on the ecosystem has become a subject of scientific debate. Biologist Erick Lundgren studies burros in Death Valley National Park and holds fast to the controversial opinion that burros actually contribute more benefit than harm to the desert, filling an ecological niche left behind by extinct North American equids. He claims that burros' digging behavior unlocks vital water sources for other organisms, and has documented mountain lions preying upon burros, thus proving they are an important part of the food chain for apex predators. Most National Park Service (NPS) biologists hold the opposite view, believing that non-native species can only be detrimental to the landscape.
The National Park Service has a zero tolerance policy towards feral horses and burros, and that's because the parks are established to protect native species. You know, we hear that term all the time and we kind of take it for granted. It's not a scientific requirement. It's a normative value to say the only native species have value. And when you think about what the idea of native-ness or what native means, you start to get into some really murky terrain.
There are remarkable things unfolding in this ecosystem that are wondrous and interesting, that are fascinating to the public and are fascinating scientifically. But these are not acknowledged by the park or by most conservation biologists or ecologists.
—Erick Lundgren, Biologist
People were traveling through the desert hills, prospecting, looking for mines. And then when things didn't work out, they just abandoned their animals. Today's burros are basically feral donkeys. We don't know exactly how many burros there are in Death Valley now, but it's probably somewhere between three and five thousand. And the numbers have been increasing a lot.
The National Park Service policies are not specific to burros, but more about all invasive non-native species, which is that they don't belong in parks and to the extent possible, they should be excluded or removed. And so here in Death Valley National Park our goal is to have zero burros in the park. And we're just going to move toward that goal.
— Abigail Wines, Death Valley National Park Ranger
While humans debate over their presence, the animals themselves remain fluffy but hardy foragers with a large fan club of devoted followers. Donkey rescue organizations have popped up across the country, like Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, whose owner Mark Meyers fell in love with donkeys in middle age and devoted his life to their protection. He has a partnership with Death Valley National Park to round up burros and remove from the park. Nearby, in Florence, Arizona, burros rounded up by the BLM are cared for and trained by inmates in the Arizona correctional system, in an arrangement that Arizona BLM manager John Hall calls "a win-win for everyone."
We have 20 sanctuaries, about 2,000 donkeys that are in our sanctuaries at any given time. Those donkeys get the exact same medical care as if they were on the yard. They just get a little more freedom. And then eventually they start coming around and then we can move them into the training program and they learn to accept a halter, be friendly, walk on a lead and pick up their hoof for trimming. Pretty good deal. And now we manage five and a half million acres of wild donkey habitat, and that's areas where they are not federally protected.
—Mark Meyers, Executive Director, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue
On the eastern edge of Death Valley, just a few miles from the park entrance, sits Beatty, Nevada, an unincorporated former mining town. Because of its mining past, burros and Beatty are inextricably linked. There is currently a herd of nearly 800 feral burros living in the area, with periodic roundups conducted by the BLM. Burros are often seen strolling through town munching down local vegetation, drinking from a trough set up across the street from the Family Dollar, and occasionally blocking traffic on the main street.
Everyone in Beatty has different feelings about burros. Some embrace them as a reminder of the region's mining past, consider them a bit of local color, and hope that their presence will bring tourists to the town. Others find them a nuisance and an ecological hazard.
Back in the day we used to have burro barbecues. People shot them and then they would put them in a pit in the ground and have a barbecue and people would go and eat them...
Now the tourists come. They feed them. But there's also people in town that feed them. Burros do bite. And at some point they're going to take a kid's hand off. And when that happens, then there will be a big drive to get the burros out of Beatty. And then you'll take them out and let them loose, and they'll probably die because they're not equipped.
They eat my flowers and poop everywhere. They shouldn't be here. They are wild animals. They're easily domesticated because, you know, that's what they came from. But they're not domesticated. We can't even keep them as pets because the BLM says that's a no no.
—Dee Crawford, Beatty resident
Most ungulates, like elk and deer, have a breeding season. The problem with burros is there's no breeding season. They breed continuously. Another problem in this area is once you start feeding wild animals –- people feed them carrots and think they're really cute — they can kick you in the head any time they want. Once you do that, they become dependent, and they don't leave the area.
—Karl Olsen, Mayor of Rhyolite
These two guys were out there and they were shooting the burros and just letting the bodies pile up. I think it was just some guys who were either workers or were just passing through. I don't know why they would shoot them and just leave them like that.
I just let them be. I mean, besides causing accidents on the highway or eating some trash, I think they're really neat. And they deserve to have a place here, like everybody else.
—Valerie Pierce, Beatty resident
They just walk right along my porch, right in the front. You can hear them, and they have these really tiny little hooves. They're so sure-footed in the rocks. And you can see how they've evolved over thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. You can learn a lot from them.
—Rupert Bragg-Smith, race car driver, collector, Beatty resident
The film approaches the ideas and disputes over donkeys through portrayals of the people involved, including Eric and Cindy Davis at their incredible burro-filled ranch in Dixon, California. Eric Davis is an equine vet who's devoted his life to donkey welfare, and his wife Cindy is a veterinary nurse/anesthetist and donkey expert. They often take in wounded burros and those that the BLM can't adopt out.
The modern donkey is evolved from the Nubian wild ass, which lives in one of the most extreme environments in the world. It's possible that they were domesticated before horses. And the reason that they were is because evolving in this environment, they are very resistant to high heat. They require relatively little water.
They're not horses with big ears. They're donkeys. And they're very analytical animals. When they're faced with a problem, they think, "Okay, what do I have to do to get out of this with the minimum amount of effort. And sometimes people see that as being stubborn. They're really not. What they're doing is they're being analytical. And you have to respect them for that.
—Eric Davis, Veterinarian, UC Davis
Moreno Valley, California
Outside the jurisdiction of the BLM and the National Park Service, a growing population of feral donkeys in the valleys between San Bernadino and Riverside counties are increasingly under siege as their habitat becomes urban. They roam through city lands and private property, constantly getting into trouble as they encroach on fenced property and get hit by vehicles on the highways that snake through their terrain. Severe droughts drive these burros further into town to drink from sprinklers around new housing developments, causing more altercations with cars and people.
I've been in the real estate business for 45 years, and I'm an animal lover. And we have some wildlife here. Coyotes, snakes, birds of prey, and a pretty good healthy donkey or burro population that many people said were remnants of miner donkeys from explorers in the hills around here. I don't know if that's true, but we have maybe 600 donkeys around here now.
Some people think they're pests. Some people feed them. Some people ignore them. Some people hit them with their cars. For me, it's part of our community. They're part of the fabric that Mother Nature has given us.
— Dave Rogers, Moreno Valley rancher
It's sad to see the orange groves, that were there for 100 years before them, go. It was really quiet and eerily peaceful back in there when it was just trees. Now you got traffic. Nice houses, big houses, lots of homeowners and tenants and children up there. Plus, there's water. That's irresistible if you're a donkey. How are we going to keep them out? You can't keep them out. It's just going to have to be a big learning curve. People who hate the wildlife probably don't want to live there or will leave, and other people will be very happy to put these on their Christmas cards and send them back East.
— Dave Rogers, Moreno Valley rancher
Combining history, ecology, politics and culture, Burrocracy will illuminate the complexity of human-burro relations and larger questions of how we as humans interact with nature, and what our role should be in the management of 'wild' animals and 'wild' places.
Burrocracy is in the early production phase, with completion likely in 2024. The film is being made to play on numerous platforms including broadcast television, educational DVD and streaming, and home video use.
Asali Echols (director) is a documentary filmmaker from the San Francisco Bay Area. She started as an editor, cutting numerous short and feature documentaries, including the award-winning 2e: Twice Exceptional (2015), and Navajo Math Circles (2016). Other credits include the feature documentaries Counting From Infinity (2015); 4 Wheel Bob (2016); 2e2: Teaching the Twice Exceptional (2018); and High as a Kite (2020). In 2020, she completed her MFA in Cinema at San Francisco State University, where she currently teaches undergraduate filmmaking and editing. Her short documentaries, Lion on the Mat (2021) andThe Violin Upstairs (2019), have screened in over 30 festivals around the US, and won multiple awards. Burrocracy is her first feature project.
George Csicsery (co-producer) is a writer and independent filmmaker. Since 1968 he has directed 36 films, many about the lives and work of mathematicians. His best-known documentaries are N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős (1993), Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem (2008), Hard Problems (2008), Hungry for Monsters (2004), Where the Heart Roams (1987), Counting from Infinity (2015), Navajo Math Circles (2016), and Secrets of the Surface (2020). He has produced and/or directed films on subjects ranging from pirates, People of the Current (1971), to prostitutes, Hookers (1975), folk musicology, Songs Along a Stony Road (2008), and scouts, Troop 214 (2011). He was awarded California Humanities grants for two previous films; Television: The Enchanted Mirror (1981), co-directed with Julene Bair; and The Thursday Club (2005). In 2009, Csicsery received the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) Communications Award for bringing mathematics to non-mathematical audiences.
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BURROCRACY is a sponsored project of the International Documentary Association (IDA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization.
Tax-deductible contributions to the project can be made via the project donation page at IDA's website.
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