America owes a lot to the oft-mocked donkey. After all, it was on their backs that much of the West was won. Yet few people realize or discuss just how much abuse these animals continue to endure.

Thanks to one anonymous Farm Sanctuary donor’s generous $50,000 gift, we can continue our vital work toward the care of our rescued donkeys, while making a difference for animals just like them. With this support, we can spread the word that domestic donkeys and burros — wild donkeys — are so much more than food, entertainment, or even “beasts of burden” — that they compare to factory-farmed animals in more ways than people realize.

“Most people do not think of donkeys being animals who are slaughtered for their meat or hides,” explains National Shelter Director Susie Coston, “But just like the other species who call Farm Sanctuary home, these incredibly beautiful and intelligent animals suffer horribly at the hands of man. And just like our cows, chickens, and pigs, who represent only a tiny fraction of the animals who suffer daily in an industry that sees them as a product, our donkey residents serve as ambassadors and can help educate all who meet them. We are so grateful to our wonderful donor for seeing our donkey friends as someone, and giving so generously for their care.”

Patsy is one of them.

Meet Patsy, a resident burro of at our Southern California Shelter.

It’s a cool, golden evening in Acton, CA, and Patsy has just heard the call for dinner. After a busy day romping across the sanctuary grounds and hillsides, nothing sounds better than a nourishing meal with her herd. Patsy easily loses track of time, and rushes down the path to join the early diners; her son Platero, best friend Dolly, and her son Dorado soon follow suit. These “core four” do everything together, and for Patsy, family is everything.

On one dark day nearly four years ago, however, Patsy almost lost everything that ever mattered. But thanks to support from The Platero Project — a privately-funded Humane Society of the United States program that protects wild burros, and helps displaced individuals find new homes — nothing will ever tear them apart again.

The Platero Project exists to help families like Patsy’s stay together — both in the wild and in sanctuary settings. Their leading projects include placement, working with trainers in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to help displaced burros become more suitable for adoption and working on safely reducing wild burro populations to decrease the numbers in need of new homes in the first place.

Patsy, Dolly, Platero, and Dorado’s journey begins long before our work with The Platero Project, however. These four descend from the burro herds of yesteryear, whose presence was a fixture of our country’s “Wild West.” Over the course of several centuries, settlers helped domesticate these animals — making them a staple of life as we knew it. With the rise of western migration, for example, travelers needed help shuttling supplies across the country — however, they soon discovered that their typical “beasts of burden,” horses, were no match for the new frontier. Enter the burro, the horse’s desert-hardy cousin, whose natural abilities to withstand drought, scarcity, and harsh labor proved indispensable to these travelers’ success — and even their survival.

Miners and their burros in Goldfield, NV. Photograph by Waldron Fawcett. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Just because burros could withstand these conditions does not make their treatment acceptable, however. These free spirits are typically forced to trudge great lengths with heavy loads upon their backs. Donkeys may have a reputation for being stubborn, but it’s because they prefer to go where the wind takes them — and not where someone else feels they should be. In the wild, for example, “jacks” (male burros) prefer to venture on their own, without others around to weigh them down. Meanwhile, the “jennies” (females) form close-knit groups amongst themselves and their foals — just as we have observed with Patsy and her crew.

Over time, these burros could finally do just that. Some escaped their servitude and found refuge in the desert; others were turned loose once no longer needed. In the absence of humans, they began to populate the land — finally free to live on their own accord.

As their herds multiplied, however, local ranchers began to feel threatened; they felt these burros encroached upon their land, and feared their own livestock would lose their place. The health of their animals — and their paychecks — were at risk. How could they possibly compete with a group so inherent to the surrounding land? Their answer was unfortunate: ranchers began removing donkeys from their homes, to make way for their own herds. Over the next two decades, they made sport of hunting, abusing, and sending innocent donkeys to slaughter — devastating the natural population in their wake.

Burros loaded with ore sacks in the Labor Day burro-loading contest in Silverton, CO. Photo by Russell Lee; retrieved by the Library of Commerce.

Appalled by this injustice, the public rallied on these burros’ behalf. Their campaigns and compassion worked: in 1971, Congress designated wild burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and deserving of our protection. They then tasked the BLM with maintaining a healthy burro population and overseeing the individuals on these lands. As they would soon realize, however, this task was easier said than done.

As overpopulation remained a concern, the BLM began routine “roundups” to remove excess burros from public lands. Though well-intentioned, however, these roundups often caused more harm than good. Attempts to corral these donkeys — typically through mounting or by helicopter — are often very traumatic. Burros will naturally scatter under pressure, so separation from loved ones is not uncommon. Once in government possession, their fates remain unclear. Many captured burros spend unmeasured time in government holding pens as they await adoption; others face mistreatment on the way to slaughterhouses overseas. Sadly, these burros lose their homes, their families, and their very way of life — despite the BLM’s efforts to ensure their protection.

However, there are some happy endings — and Patsy’s story is one of them. Before coming to Farm Sanctuary, she and Dolly roamed the California desert with their herd. The two were timid, starving, and pregnant at the time, so their very survival was of the essence. When the BLM heard about this herd in need, they immediately sprang into action — taking this group into their care to protect them from further harm. That year, both Patsy and Dolly gave birth to their sons; they almost lost them, however, due to circumstances beyond their control.

With support from the Platero Project, the BLM works to place burros in safe, permanent homes. At first, however, they worried Patsy and Dolly may not have this chance. Due to the girls’ age and temperament, they deemed them “unadoptable.” They were very shy and understandably distrustful of humans, making their placement prospects grim. The Platero Project would not give up, though. They knew that Patsy and Dolly — like the hundreds of other burros displaced from their homes — deserved the utmost care and protection. As soon as we learned about these homeless jennies, we immediately offered them a home — and in time, a family.

Dolly and Patsy safe at Farm Sanctuary

Had Farm Sanctuary not stepped in, the two might not have found a safe home; their sons, however, were a different story. Platero and Dorado were much friendlier than their traumatized mothers, which made them better candidates for adoption. Before the BLM learned we would take Patsy and Dolly, they had already found a new home for the sons; in this way, they could free up space in the holding center for future roundup missions, while helping those in their care attain their best lives possible. They did not take into account, however, that what these youngsters truly needed most out of life were their mothers — their family.

Platero and Dorado

Dismayed at the thought of permanent separation, we asked the Platero Project for help in reuniting them. Just two weeks after adopting their mothers, we welcomed Platero and Dorado to our Southern California Shelter.

Today, four years later, they remain inseparable. “Patsy and Dolly parent the boys together, and are one solid family unit,” says Acton Shelter Manager Jessica Due. “They have adopted ‘outsiders’ like Harley and the others (Waylon, Honky Tonk, and Albert), but the four of them are very tight. Platero thinks he runs the family and is often the one out front and center — but it’s really Dolly who runs the family. They love to explore. They love their bovine friends and are often found all together, enjoying the sun.”

With their beloved family intact, Patsy and Dolly have truly come into their own. Once cautious and aloof, they are slowly learning to trust and love again. “We have been working on gentling them for over a year now, with success,” Jessica says. “They both will come up for treats. Dolly, being the oldest and wisest, is the more cautious one. We bring them banana pieces or another piece of fruit in the mornings so that they come up and eat out of our hands, and can see we mean no harm. It has worked well!”

Patsy approaches for a snack.

What makes us happiest, however, is seeing these four together. Thanks to this incredible gift from our anonymous patron, they will always have each other — all that each of them has truly ever wanted.

“I’ve been deeply moved by the generosity and dedication of this donor, and very grateful to partner together to provide sanctuary and advocate for the often maligned donkeys,” says Farm Sanctuary President & Co-founder Gene Baur. “With their very generous gift of $50,000, Farm Sanctuary will be able to provide all of the donkeys in our care with veterinary attention, healthy food and treats, comfortable bedding, and a lifetime of happiness surrounded by their fellow donkey family and friends. We greatly appreciate this compassionate gift and the joy it will bring to our donkeys at both our Acton Sanctuary and Watkins Glen sanctuary — allowing us to also share their moving stories to inspire change in the world.”