Stubborn Asses March on Capitol

Protestors want Gov. Perry to end the slaughter of wild burros at Big Bend Ranch State Park
by Published on
photos by Chase Martinez

Nancy, a snow-white burro wearing a cape that read “Peace on Earth,” didn’t much feel like marching on the Texas Capitol.

“Oh no, not a stubborn donkey,” quipped a nearby motorcycle cop.

“In the name of Jesus,” her handler, Tammie Hillis of Texarkana, repeatedly whispered to Nancy.

Nancy finally budged and the parade of seven or so donkeys, burros and asses — and their human friends from the Wild Burro Protection League — headed stubbornly north on Austin’s Lavaca Street, on their way to the Capitol. Their mission: Deliver a petition with more than 100,000 signatures calling on Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to stop the slaughter of wild burros in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers the wild burros to be an invasive species, harmful to the fragile desert ecosystem. In December, TPWD reinstated a policy of using “lethal means” to remove the estimated 50 to 100 burros that call the park home. The parks department had stopped killing the burros for two years while volunteers tried to capture them. They were unable to round up a single ass.

But the wild burros of Big Bend have captured the hearts of people across the state and the world. Opponents consider the practice of killing the feral burros to be unnecessary and cruel. “Would any of you shoot a burro in the head?” asked Marjorie Farabee, the founder of the Alpine-based Wild Burro Protection League. “Could you do it?” Farabee led the protest today from a buckboard driven by Miss Abby, a prize-winning donkey — and blogger.

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Demonstrators march to the state Capitol to drop off signatures against the killing of burros in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

“Nobody relishes conducting lethal control,” said Kevin Good, the special assistant to TPWD Director Carter Smith. “It’s not something that our staff enjoys. It’s also not something that we particularly go out of our way to do.”

The theory among the burro defenders is that TPWD is killing the animals in order to make way for Bighorn Sheep and the wealthy hunters they attract. “That’s demonstrably false,” Good said. “We’ve had a policy statewide, not just in Big Bend Ranch, of removing feral and exotic species in all state parks for 20 or so years at least.”

Bighorn Sheep, he said, are native to Big Bend country but were eradicated in the 50s. The parks department is reintroducing them to Big Bend Ranch State Park because of their value as a native species. There are no plans to allow the hunting of Bighorn Sheep, Good said.

But back in the streets of Austin, the official line was bogus. “They smell bullshit,” said one woman of the sometimes-skittish burros. “They must be close to the Capitol.”

The political dimension grew once at the pink-granite building. “The Democrats are in town,” mugged one woman sitting atop a donkey. “Hey, I vote Republican,” chimed in Jennifer Garretson, a veterinarian from Waco who rode a mammoth donkey. “Just because I ride an ass!”

After delivering the petitions to Perry and Dewhurst’s offices, Tammie Hills explained her simple message: If the donkey was good enough for Jesus to ride to the cross on, then it should be important enough for the state of Texas not to kill. “Being the religious man that he is, I know [Perry] understands that,” Hillis said. “I believe Jesus used the donkey to show us all humility, humbleness, meekness, subservience.”

Tammy Hills and Gayle-Suzanne Barron deliver signatures

(from left to right) Tammie Hillis and Gayle-Suzanne Barron deliver signatures to Julia Rathgerber, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst’s deputy chief of staff.

Providence may indeed be shining on the wild burros of Big Bend. TPWD’s Good said that the agency has been talking to the Humane Society about allowing that group to try its hand at capturing the burros. The Humane Society, he said, recently visited the park and has plans to submit a proposal.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.