August 23, 2009

Please, don't feed the burros

Too many treats harm animals, official says

Mohave Daily News

LOVED TO DEATH? Oatman's burros have long been a draw for visitors, but now the BLM is asking people to stop feeding them because it is affecting the animals' health. (HEATHER SMATHERS/The Daily News)

OATMAN - Give burros care, not carrots.

That's one of many draft slogans the Bureau of Land Management has issued, asking people to stop feeding the Oatman burros.

“The Oatman burros have been fed so much they are sick and fat,” said BLM Public Affairs Officer Mike Brown. “They're being loved to death.”

The BLM is asking Oatman shopkeepers, residents and tourists to stop feeding the wild burros carrots, hay pellets, salt cubes and even water.

“Frankly, the wild burros that live around Oatman are far healthier than the burros that come to town,” Brown said.

Burros can get all the nutrients and sustenance they need from the vegetation in the desert areas around Oatman, Brown added.

With thousands of tourists buying bags of carrots and hay pellets to feed to the burros, Brown said the burros are sick from hoof disease, behavior problems and are extremely overweight.

“One carrot won't harm the burros,” Brown said. “But it's the 10,000 more they are being fed every year that will kill them.”

Judy Love, who owns and operates the Classy Ass, said the health of the burros is her main concern.

“I love Oatman and I love the burros, but their health is the most important thing,” Love said. “I'm glad they (BLM) are taking a stand.”

The Oatman burros are more likely to become ill and to die early than the 300 or so wild burros that stay out of town, Brown said.

Brown said the burros will not suffer from any kind of delirium or other illness if they can not have carrots and hay pellets.

“We've seen this before where we cut off the burros and the only side effect is that they get healthier,” Brown said.

But some Oatman shopkeepers dispute that.

“They are getting aggressive because they are not being fed like they used to,” said John Nowak, owner of the Oatman General Store.

Shopkeeper Jolene Brown, who owns Amargosa Toads, agreed, saying that the burros have practically been “kicking her door in” to get food.

All of the burros are managed by the BLM's Wildhorse and Burro Program, legislation that passed Congress in 1971. All wild horses and burros are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior and the BLM is responsible for keeping statistics on their numbers, health and safety.

Brown said the BLM has held several town-hall style meetings with the residents and shopkeepers of Oatman. BLM suggested a committee be formed to examine the way the town and the federal government could work together for the well-being of the burros.

“What came out of those meetings is that the townspeople asked the BLM to take the lead and give them guidelines,” Brown said.

What the BLM came up with was an indefinite moratorium on feeding the burros. Shopkeepers have been asked to stop selling carrots and pellets in their stores and to post signs asking tourists not to feed the burros any carrots or other treats they may have brought with them.

Brown said he would not speculate on any possible sanctions shopownwers or tourists would face if they don't comply with the request.

“First, we want to work with people and see what happens. Again, everyone has the same love of the burros and we all have their health in mind,” he said.

Nowak said just because shops will no longer sell carrots doesn't mean people will stop feeding the burros other types of food.

“Part of my shop is a grocery store and I see people buying cookies and potato chips for the burros,” he said. “Is the BLM going to ticket people for feeding them other foods, or food they brought to town?”

He also wondered if the BLM or another agency had the authority to tell stores that they couldn't sell carrots.

“I don't think there is any way to limit our sales of carrots,” he opined.

Jolene Brown said she believes not being able to sell carrots will have an impact on some businesses and the Oatman economy in general.

“I think some businesses, who do a lot of carrot sales, will have to close,” she said.

Changing a culture of many generations of tourists to Oatman won't be easy, Mike Brown acknowledged.

“Think about when the National Park Service asked people to stop feeding the bears at Yellowstone,” he said. “It didn't happen overnight, but people eventually stopped doing it.”

Love said she does not believe the burros will stop coming to town.

“I've been here 21 years, and burros wandered through town before we started feeding them carrots,” she said. “They are wild animals and they will continue to go where they please.”

The BLM's Brown agreed that the burros will still come to town to greet visitors.

“This will not affect Oatman,” Brown said. “People will still come to Oatman to see the burros, just not to feed the burros. People can still come and take pictures, go to the gunfights and shop in the stores.”

But Jolene Brown said she thinks the moratorium will affect Oatman merchants in a negative way.

“The burros are the only reason people come to Oatman,” she said. “Without the burros it's just an old town that sells a bunch of items people can get anywhere.”