Protecting Burros in Big Bend

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PHOTO BY SANDY CARSON

When Zach Zniewski moved to Texas from Minnesota 12 years ago, he didn’t anticipate caring for five donkeys. Today, Zniewski, 63, is an advocate for the animals as a member of the Wild Burro Protection League. The group is opposed to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s policy of killing the burros in Big Bend Ranch State Park because they compete with bighorn sheep for resources. Parks & Wildlife, which considers the burros an invasive species, has temporarily suspended its policy after the Humane Society offered to remove the animals without killing them.

“The [Texas Parks & Wildlife] policy is to change the focus of the park from a family tourism place to a hunting preserve. It’s not just the burros; they’ve gotten rid of any large mammals on the pretext they compete with the bighorn sheep for water and grazing.

“From the 1500s up until about the 1970s those burros in Mexico and Texas were an integral part of work here and an integral part of the culture. To me, having a shared cultural heritage is really important to people in communities, and that’s something you can’t place a monetary value on.

“I live in a little tourist town called Marathon, and when people stop here to buy gas and get coffee on the way to [Big Bend Ranch State Park], they say, ‘Oh, we saw wild donkeys, they came right up to the fence.’ People like to see those. Kids love them, of course.

“I’ve got a little herd of my own. A lady friend of mine said, ‘You should come over and take a ride on my donkeys.’ I said to myself, dang, after being a motorcyclist for 20 years, that’ll be a change. I went over there and one of those donkeys just wanted to come home with me. So I got one and then I thought, well, they’re herd animals and I should have a couple. So I ended up with five.

“I’ve got one who may just be the oldest donkey in Texas. He was born in 1957. Now he’s too old to ride. I just keep him—it’s his retirement home here, and of course he likes being around all the Jennys. His name is Viejo Alampo.

“If you don’t wake up on time, they start making a huge racket. I feed them, and then I look over them, check their hooves and stuff. I have two that are good riding animals and I might go to the bar with those, or to the coffee shop, ride around. I guess the routine is I ended up being their caretaker. They have a good life, they like it. I wouldn’t be without them.

“The parks administration doesn’t see that the burros have any value for our parks system or for tourism or for people who live along the border here. [Members of the Wild Burro Protection League] have different ideas than them.

“The idea that tourists in general aren’t a big enough constituency to satisfy the park management and [that park officials] need an expensive hunting preserve irritates me to no end.”

Nick Swartsell is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Texas.