April 13, 2008

Reflective collars may help save Riverside County's wild burros

The animals have become a traffic hazard along busy Reche Canyon Road, where residents hope to protect them.

By David Kelly, Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times

Former rodeo rider and jockey Kim Terry has been around all sorts of animals his whole life, but it's the wild burros that have snorted and kicked their way into his heart. He loves their moxie, respects their survival skills and is smitten with what he calls their "fantastic personalities."

"Just don't get behind them," he advised recently as he prepared to flush a dozen or so from a holding pen.

Terry let rip with a sharp "heyaaaah!" and charged them, swinging a long blue stick. The burros stampeded into a narrow chute. He straddled the bars above them, struggling to fasten shiny red collars around their thick necks.

"Man, that's hard work," he said, sucking deeply for air. "That'll make you sweat."

Terry and a handful of Reche Canyon residents are trying to save the feral burros prowling the badlands of the rural enclave between bustling Colton and sprawling Moreno Valley.

The burros are California's only herd on private land. They arrived at least half a century ago, and state officials think there are about 50 within Reche Canyon. Terry believes as many as 400 others live in neighboring canyons and wander over.

They have become major hazards on increasingly busy Reche Canyon Road, a convenient shortcut between the two cities.

Animal control officers said there were 37 accidents involving burros between 2003 and 2006, with 17 of the small donkeys killed. A 21-year-old Rialto resident died when her car struck a burro in 2005.

"I saw her laying dead," Terry said. "A burro went right through their windshield. It was the most heartbreaking thing you can imagine."

Terry, 55, and Rhonda Leavitt, 50, are now putting reflective collars on the animals to make them easier to spot at night. Terry rounds them up while Leavitt makes the collars.

"I go to thrift stores to get my belts, then sew on this reflecting tape," she said recently as she sat in the back room of her hilltop house, carefully feeding belts through an old sewing machine. "I can make 10 or 15 in a couple hours."

Two notches on the sewing table mark how long a belt must be to fit a burro's neck. Style isn't a question.

"They don't care what they look like," she said. "And the belts reflect like you wouldn't believe."

Leavitt, who operates a water truck service, has started Reche Canyon Burro Support to raise money for hay, veterinary care and more corrals.

She said the problems occur during dry periods, when burros wander in search of water. One side of the road has natural springs. Leavitt puts out water on the other side to try to keep the animals from crossing.

"I now go through 1,000 gallons of water a day in summer because 40 burros come," she said. "They wait for me to show up."

Canyon resident Cathy Yunker takes in injured burros. She keeps one as a pet -- an ungainly 6-month-old named Pumpkin that she nursed back to health after it was mauled by a dog.

Now the little burro, or burrito, trails Yunker around the yard, braying noisily whenever she moves out of sight. Pumpkin also eats two pounds of peppermint candy a week.

"She has the best-smelling breath of any burro in the canyon," Yunker boasted as Pumpkin sniffed her pocket. "When I want her, I just rattle the peppermint bag."

Velna Kraeger often lugs sacks of hay and carrots up the canyon to feed the burros. That's where she met Blaze.

"I'd walk up every morning and I'd talk to him," she said. "I'd holler, 'Blaze!' and he'd come running across the field. He'd start yelling at me if I hadn't been there for a while. Then about a dozen more showed up."

Wildlife experts usually frown on such interactions, saying when animals lose their fear of humans, they can get into trouble. In the case of Reche Canyon, they have said, it's probably too late.

"The burros are already habituated to people," said Rita Gutierrez, field services commander for Riverside County Animal Control. "If you drive up Pigeon Pass, you can find a wild herd where the babies will come up and snuggle you. The bad side is they associate cars with people."

Gutierrez supports the collars and thinks they will probably save lives.

"It's a clever idea and it certainly can't hurt," she said.

The canyon's rugged terrain, rough roads and steep ravines have long helped keep developers at bay.

Although the population has grown to nearly 3,000, it remains a rustic, eclectic hideaway. Ramshackle houses squat in hollows. Mansions hide behind locked gates. St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church sits on one side of the canyon. Olive Dell Ranch, one of California's oldest nudist colonies, is on the other.

Ranchers still dominate the area, raising horses, cattle and pigs.

How the burros got here is unclear. Longtime canyon dwellers say they came in the early 1950s after escaping from a festival at Big Bear Lake. Others say a Rialto farmer let a herd go and the burros multiplied and spread.

Humans have arrived in more traditional fashion, flooding into rapidly spreading housing tracts at opposite ends of the canyon. As Colton and Moreno Valley mushroomed, the winding road linking them turned from a bucolic country lane into a traffic-choked highway on which posted speed limits of 50 mph are routinely ignored.

Burros are often hit in broad daylight. Those badly hurt are euthanized by animal control officials, who average about one burro call a month.

"The four-legged animals with the big ears are OK. It's the jackasses behind the wheel that we're scared of," said Stella Terry, 73, Kim Terry's mother, who has lived in Reche Canyon since 1953.

Marveen Stout owns the Hitchin Post market on a busy bend in Reche Canyon Road. She sees both sides.

"The people who drive through here don't want to hurt an animal, but they don't want an accident either," Stout said. "They are neat animals, but they can do a lot of damage. It would be nice to put them all into one big corral somewhere."

Some drivers clearly dislike the donkeys.

"I was behind a guy the other day who flipped off a burro," Kim Terry said. "What is the point of that?"

Terry was a jockey for 27 years and lives on five acres of his family's 100-acre property. He trains horses when he's not rounding up burros, animals he compares to wild mustangs.

He can often lure the burros into his corral with barrels of water. But sometimes he has to chase them down using a motorcycle and his well-trained Queensland Heeler, Cheyenne.

Once the burros have been collared, he sets them free, though getting them to leave can be hard. Recently, Terry tried to cajole a dozen out of a pen, only to be rebuffed with baleful stares and fierce kicks in the air.

He got on his motorcycle and Cheyenne hopped onto the handlebars. They sped toward the burros and, at the last minute, the dog leaped off. The burros panicked as he bit their legs, sending them bolting out of the pen.

Minutes later, they were ambling up a dirt road toward the hills beyond, sporting their dapper new red-and-white collars while lingering to eat weeds.

Terry wiped the sweat from his forehead.

"I love these burros," he said. "If you raise them when they're young, they follow you around like a big dog. They're only mean if you push them around or if they are pregnant. Still, I wouldn't turn my back on one."

He does have one quibble about his growing reputation with the animals.

"I'm not sure I like my nickname," he said. "They call me the ass whisperer."