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6/21/2012 11:10:00 AM
Guest Column: Burros - Those Feisty Desert Canaries
Gary McCarthy
Our American West

The first burros probably arrived with the Spanish explorers and those that did not immediately decide to escape into the southwestern deserts quickly proved their worth. A burro or donkey is a sure-footed little animal that can pick his way through rocks and cactus like a mountain goat, carry more weight than seems possible given his diminutive size and spindly legs and get by on no more water than you'll find in a desert mirage. The stories of burros locating water in the desert and thus saving the lives of their prospectors are legendary, and today the burro has proven himself to be such a great survivor that he is being rounded up and sold by BLM as a lovable nuisance. Next to the coyote, he is about the most adaptable four-legged creature flourishing in Death Valley and equally inhospitable environments. In western Arizona in a town named Oatman, burros roam the streets and even enter saloons where they are celebrities attracting adoring crowds.

Burros are tough fighters, too. A jack will protect his herd of females and stand right up against a wild mustang stallion in a fight to the death. They have been found with long white scar marks down their little backs where they escaped a mountain lion and, if cornered by one, they are wicked fighters with both their hooves and long yellow teeth.

But most of the lore of the West concerning the burro, or "desert canary" as he is affectionately called because of his braying, revolves around their intelligence, resourcefulness and well defined personalities. The only trouble with burros is that like mules and some horses they can be contrary at times and very difficult to catch. This fact is illustrated by a story of an old prospector named Slim Ludwick who was being cross-examined by a frontier lawyer as to his qualifications as an expert mining witness. "How long have you been prospecting?" an antagonistic lawyer asked.

"'Bout thirty years, I reckon," Slim said.

After more questions, the lawyer again asked Slim how long he had been prospecting.

"I guess about five," Slim replied this time.

"Ah ha!" the lawyer cried. "Earlier you said thirty years, now you're saying five. Don't you realize that you're under oath!"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Slim said turning to the judge. "I said I'd been a prospector for thirty years, and I have. I said I'd prospected five years and I have. Both statements are facts, Your Honor. Five years I prospected and the other twenty-five I spent lookin' for my damned burros!"

The judge, a knowledgeable mining man himself, nodded his head with understanding and said, "This man can be considered an expert mining witness."

As stated before, burros have almost human personalities and a lonesome prospector almost inevitably came to view a burro either as his friend or a worthy adversary. I like burros so much that I wrote an uplifting family Christmas story called "Maddie O'Brien's Christmas Donkeys" that can be ordered off my web page or from Amazon. One of my favorite stories about donkeys happened when two prospectors met in the desert and began to swap the latest news of gold and silver strikes. The first prospector said, "There's a thumper of a strike way out at Skull Mountain, ya reckon we oughta go?"

The second prospector glanced over at their burros who had suddenly raised their heads, "Don't reckon we ought," he decided in a loud voice.

The talk drifted to other things but when the two burros had moved off far enough, the second prospector leaned over to whisper confidentially to the first, "Sure I'll jine ye! I was figgerin' on gettin' an early start in the mornin', but I didn't want them danged burros to know!"Burros have always been pests as well as pets. In Dan De Quill's definitive and highly entertaining, 'The Big Bonanza' about life on the Comstock Lode, he called burros "Washoe Canaries" and cited a case where burros became such thieves that the miners finally decided something drastic had to be done to curb their raiding ways. It seems that each morning when the Comstock miners awoke and prepared to go to work, the burros would be up on the hillsides or just outside of rifle shot grazing as if nothing at all mattered. But the moment the miners' campsites were left unguarded, the little thieves would race down and eat everything in sight. They'd first devour sugar, then flour and even chew open tins of vegetables and fruit. They'd eat woolen shirts, boots, anything at all. Finally, the miners grew desperate enough to hit upon an inspiration. They left a sack of what was called 'self-rising' flour which had in its ingredients a great deal of yeast. All that was required for a Comstock miner was to add water and he had biscuit mix or flapjacks.

The leader of the thieving burros claimed all the "rising flour" mix, devouring the entire sack. Then, the big fellow wandered off to drink. Very soon the self-rising principle in the flour did its expansion work. In less than an hour the burro was as round as an apple, and his legs stood out like those of a sawhorse because he was dead.

You can buy a wild burro through the BLM's adoption program and they aren't very expensive. Most can be made into devoted and highly amusing pets. Kids love them and if you put on an old miner's costume, most likely you'll be invited to lead your shaggy friend along in your local Fourth of July parade. But now that I've told you a few stories about those desert canaries, I hope you understand that they're cagey little critters and when it gets to the point where they have you talking to them like people, it's time to trade up and get a horse.

Gary McCarthy is a national award-winning western and historical novelist who welcomes comments about this column and can be reached through his website: www.CanyonCountryBooks.com.

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