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Please don’t feed the burros August 31, 2009

Posted by Ron Warnick in Animals, Attractions, Towns.
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Emily feeding one of the Oatman burros before the BLM directive.

For years, tourists to the Route 66 town of Oatman, Ariz., have been allowed to feed the wild burros that wander through the streets. Many of Oatman’s merchants sell carrots for these critters, which are descendants of the animals that once toiled in the gold mines. The Oatman burros are a major draw for a tiny town that boasts 500,000 visitors a year.

But now, according to the Associated Press (via MSNBC), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is urging merchants and tourists to not feed the burros because they’re overweight.

The agency, which manages the burros, has launched a campaign it hopes will eventually steer the burros back into the desert to forage for grass and shrubs — and get them back into shape. […]

The BLM acknowledges that its campaign to stop feeding the burros will be a hard sell but likens it to when Yellowstone National Park told visitors there to stop feeding the bears. “As the feed is diminished over time, I think they’ll start wandering out and remember what’s out there for dinner,” Oyler said.

Oatman storekeepers have been asked to stop feeding the burros or providing the treats the animals are so accustomed to. The BLM also has drafted scripts for gunfighters and shop owners that tell tourists quite bluntly that the burros are fat and are being loved to death.

Some slogans that could end up on posters or signs around town include, “No Diet-Busting Cubes or Carrots — Please!” “Keep Oatman Burros Happy and Healthy — No Extra Food,” and “Give Burros Care, not Carrots.”The BLM says the burros that don’t come into town are a lot healthier and don’t have behavioral problems or pain caused by their hooves growing to a thickness that makes it hard for them to walk.

I doubt this is going to work. I think a few burros will give up and start foraging in the wild again. But the more-stubborn animals will wait around for the local merchants to sell carrots under the table, or tourists will start bringing their own.

Maybe scheduled, rationed feedings of the burros, where tourists can participate, is a sensible solution. But if the burros disappear from the streets of Oatman, you’re going to see a severe drop-off of visitors. Tourism is about the only thing keeping the tiny town viable these days.

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