Ancestors of freedom-seekers and escapees, burros have returned to the wild in park lands across California, Nevada, and Arizona. These burros are descendants of burros brought by Spanish explorers in the 1500s or miners in the 1800s. Some of their ancestors survived in the wild after their human caretakers perished on long desert treks. Other burros escaped or were set free. These burros are the true explorers and survivors of the struggle to explore the West, because they have proven sturdier than the explorers they accompanied.
Burros are well-adapted to life in arid conditions since they are descended from wild burros of Northern Africa, an area that receives only 2 inches of rain per year. In contrast, Red Rock Canyon, NV, where many burros live currently, receives between 4 and 10 inches of rain per year.
The African burros evolved into two groups because natural features separated them. The first, the Nubians, have a line of coloration across their shoulders and down their back to form a cross. The second, the Somalians, have leg stripes. When you observe wild burros, you can sometimes place individuals into one of these two groups even now. What an animal of history!
To survive in the desert, burros must have a water source. They eat grasses and shrubs and limit activity to cooler times in the early morning and late afternoon.
In the Red Rock Canyon area of Nevada, most foals are born in June or July (interestingly one of the hotter times of the year), but foals can be born throughout the year. Gestation lasts for 11 months.
You can find wild burros along Highway 159 near the entrance to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area about 20 minutes outside of Las Vegas, NV. We had driven this road on about six different occasions and were lucky enough to spot the burros photographed early in the morning on an April day. We were able to view them from the road.
Please be extremely cautious when viewing the burros. Do not feed them! Overfeeding by tourists has trained the burros to approach the high-speed highway: dangerous both to burros and the passing cars. Treat these animals with respect for their wildness and observe them at a distance.
I highly recommend Red Rock Canyon as an easy and convenient desert escape from Las Vegas. You are also likely to see desert tortoises in the canyon. See my page for more information on these hardy reptiles.
To me, wild burros symbolize a challenge to us to be compassionate stewards of wild creatures. The original caretakers of the ancestors of these burros, through bad luck or neglect, let these animals revert to the wild. Now it is up to us to have compassion to preserve their lives.
These animals are not natives to the arid regions of the West, and so their population has to be controlled. However, thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 and the watchful eye of animal rights groups ensuring that the government upholds the act, the Bureau of Land Management holds adoptions of burros each year. Animal rights groups have campaigned to ensure that burros are not killed in the name of conserving the natural landscape.
To me, these animals are symbols of freedom and adaptability, and they have a special meaning to me due to their role in the Nativity story. In Mary and Joseph's long journey to Bethlehem, Mary rode a burro. The small hooves of the animal, perfectly adapted to making his way surely through the rocky terrain, meant that she arrived safely at her destination. This humble animal played a compassionate role in a humble story of birth.