Sanctuary endured 35 years, but failed to thrive
OLANCHA, California––At least 67 U.S. animal shelters, nonprofit animal rescues, and animal sanctuaries failed in 2018.
Twenty have failed in the first 75 days of 2019, a record pace, obliging other shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries to take in thousands of often severely neglected animals, especially dogs, cats, horses, mules, and donkeys, along with birds, reptiles, and exotic cats.
None of the recent failures, however, were at one time as renowned or as influential as Wild Burro Rescue, or had survived longer under always difficult conditions, including perennial inability to raise funds enough to sustain an unusually ambitious mission taken on in 1984 with little relevant experience and almost no material assets.
Severely overgrown hooves
“Inyo County Animal Services conducted an inspection of Diane Chonto’s wild burro sanctuary on March 5, 2019,” reported Bradford Evans of KIBS/KBOV radio, the self-proclaimed “Voice of the Sierra,” from remote Bishop, California.
“Animal Services officers witnessed approximately 160 burros, mules, horses and other livestock suffering from varying degrees of long-term neglect,” detailed Evans. “Several animals had hooves so overgrown that they curled under and continued to grow backwards toward the hind legs. Many were unable to stand, and reaching food and water was difficult.
“On March 11, 2019,” Evans continued, “Inyo County Sheriff’s investigators and deputies executed a search-and seizure warrant at the burro sanctuary. An arrest warrant was served on Chontos. She was taken into custody and booked for felony animal cruelty.”
Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue steps in
Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, headquartered in San Angelo, Texas, with 47 satellite facilities nationwide, sent five trucks and personnel from Texas, Arizona, and Virginia to remove from the Wild Burro Rescue premises 150 donkeys, nine horses, seven mules, two mini-donkeys, a cow, and a dog.
The two mini donkeys, cow, and dog “were relocated locally,” Evans said. “Six burros needed to be euthanized.”
The rest were transported, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue cofounder Mark Meyers said in a media release, “to a secure holding facility where they will receive vaccinations, dewormer, microchipping, veterinary and dental examinations, and be tested for common equine diseases.”
Former Wild Burro Rescue volunteers
Meyers, 56, then an electrical contractor, in 2000 started Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue with his wife Amy, 45, in Tehachapi, California, after both had briefly been Wild Burro Rescue volunteers.
While Wild Burro Rescue continued to struggle from a remote and perhaps impossible site, as it had from two other sites before moving to Olancha in 2000, Meyers applied his business skills to building Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue into the second largest organization dedicated to burro aid worldwide, second only to the Donkey Sanctuary, begun by Elizabeth Svendsen and June Evers in Sidmouth, England, in 1973.
By the time Svendsen died, at 81 in May 2011, the Donkey Sanctuary had grown into a $50-million-per-year organization operating donkey outpatient hospitals in 29 nations.
“Location, location, location”
Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, with annual income of $4.2 million and $2.5 million in assets, is not nearly that big.
But, emulating Svendsen, Mark and Amy Meyers have demonstrated what can be done for donkeys through the combination of aggressive fundraising with attractive locations, a flair for marketing and winning good publicity, and––especially––relentless economic ambition.
Conversely, if the secret of success in real estate is “location, location, location,” Wild Burro Rescue started out behind the eight ball and ended up on 140 acres in the middle of nowhere.
If the secret of success in animal-related fundraising and volunteer recruitment is to be “good people people, as well as good animal people,” the often reclusive Diane Chontos, 63, never had much chance.
Few volunteers, little money, eventually no hoof-trimming
Wild Burro Rescue tended to attract only a handful of volunteers at a time, not nearly enough to even keep up with basic animal care and maintenance on the 140-acre sanctuary property, a former high desert hunting ranch.
An initial investment of under $350,000, Diane Chontos guesstimated, could have paid off the sanctuary mortgage, paid for drilling a reliable well, brought in adequate electricity, added barns enough to give all of the burros shelter, if they chose to use it, and renovated buildings already on the property that could accommodate visiting volunteers.
Many other California sanctuaries raise $350,000 in a couple of months, taking advantage of proximity to Hollywood and the Silicon Valley.
But even if Diane Chontos had been a good “people person,” Wild Burro Rescue was not only far off the beaten track but almost off any track, four hours from Hollywood, including a last stretch over rough dirt roads, and no closer to anywhere else known for affluence.
The nearest landmark of note is parched Owens Lake, drained during the 1913-1926 century water diversion scandal dramatized by Jack Nicholson in the 1974 film Chinatown.
Over 32 years of operation, 20 years since nonprofit incorporation, Wild Burro Rescue developed a mailing list of about 3,000 names, as of 2016.
Entering into a high-volume direct mail contract with a company Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue had used years earlier, emphasizing “prospecting” for new donors, Wild Burro Rescue then expanded the mailing list to 13,000 names, according to data filed with Guidestar.org.
Building the list, however, required spending more than 60% of receipts on doing further mailings.
Wild Burro Rescue withdrew from the direct mailing relationship in 2018.
ANIMALS 24-7 had for 16 years received occasional warnings from other sanctuarians, visitors, and former volunteers that Wild Burro Rescue might be on the verge of collapse after moving to the present site,
Yet, time and again, the organization seemed to recover and regain momentum before lurching into another crisis.
“Lifetime of dedication”
Commented one person who had for a time been familiar with Wild Burro Rescue operations, “I am so sad that Diane’s lifetime of dedication will end like this. This is so classic. Animal rescuers just won’t ask for help before their situation becomes a crisis.
“I have always thought this set up was probably not sustainable,” the source added. “The location was bad for volunteers, visitors and adopters. Diane always had money problems. The money problems created problems getting help, food, water, and essential equipment. Without even regular power, she couldn’t do the necessary fund-raising, which just made matters worse.”
Wild Burro Rescue, years after moving to Olancha, still had only limited electricity from solar panels and batteries, with no refrigeration and no running water, other than winter runoff from the Inyo Mountains.
Bad luck––but luck is residue of design
What fortune blew Wild Burro Rescue’s way included a howling wind storm at Halloween 2003 that tumbled a four-equine trailer like a cardboard box, wrecking it.
An inebriated volunteer later wrecked the larger of the two WBR water tankers, leaving a leaky smaller tanker to collect water for the burros several times a day from a recreational vehicle park whose owner was sympathetic toward animals, and allowed Chontos to use her showers.
Story began with gap in 1971 law
The Wild Burro Rescue story in a sense began with the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which protected wild equines to some extent on property leased by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The act never applied, however, to wild equines on private property or non-BLM government land. Wild horses and burros were left completely unprotected on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, the armed forces, Native American tribes, and state governments.
The National Park Service, in particular, targeted non-native species for extermination, including especially wild burros.
Cleveland Amory & the Fund for Animals
Wild burro roundups at the Grand Canyon and Catalina Island, undertaken to keep the National Park Service from shooting them, made the Fund for Animals famous, beginning in 1979.
After establishing the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary near Tyler, Texas to house those rescued burros, however, Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory recognized that saving every burro at risk from National Park Service purges would be more than his organization could do.
Amory moved on to less resource-intensive campaigns. Six years after Amory died, in 1998, the Fund for Animals, including the Black Beauty Ranch, was merged into the Humane Society of the United States.
Wild Burro Rescue started in 1984
Chontos and her former husband Gene, a psychologist, founded Wild Burro Rescue at Onalaska, Washington, in 1984, though they did not obtain federal nonprofit incorporation until 1992. They began by adopting four burros from Death Valley National Park, who had been rounded up and were at risk of being sold to slaughter.
Four years later, Gene and Diana Chontos moved to a 42-acre site, also with an Onalaska address, in the foothills north of Mount St. Helens, Washington.
“We had a dream: to walk away into the mountains and not return,” Diane Chontos said in 1993. “We would travel with our burros, and people would be able to see what wonderful animals these wild ones are. We could educate people about the issues and prove to many that wild burros should never be shot.”
Setting out in July 1990 on a planned two-year trek, Gene and Diane Chontos participated in the rescue of 123 mustangs in Oregon. Then they learned, Diane Chontos recalled, that “A herd of wild burros had been rounded up and were being held in northern Nevada, awaiting slaughter. Faced with the choice of saving the burros and taking them to our home in Washington, or continuing our trek, we saved the burros.”
Already, Diana Chontos recalled in 1993, “My life had become burros and their survival. I am a daughter of the pioneers of Washington,” she proclaimed, “and continue to live by many of the same values as my great-grandparents, except that during my childhood I found the practice of slaughtering and eating animals abhorrent. As soon as I possibly could,” she said, “I became a vegetarian.”
The 1990 mass burro rescue was still just the beginning of the task Gene and Diane Chontos took on.
California Desert Protection Act
The California Desert Protection Act in 1994 transferred tens of thousands of acres of land from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service, a catastrophe for 1,400 wild burros in the Mojave Desert, plus 500 burros in Death Valley.
On BLM property, the burros had been safe from slaughter, but on National Park Service property, they were deemed an “alien species” on the same land they had occupied for 300 years or more, since escaping from Spanish explorers, soldiers, settlers, and missionaries at some point between about 1625 and 1705.
The Mojave Desert burros were slated for “direct reduction,” a euphemism for shooting them.
Wild Burro Rescue prevented the anticipated burro massacre by negotiating a deal with the National Park Service whereby they would capture and remove enough burros each year to keep the population from increasing.
After Wild Burro Rescue could no longer keep up with the deal, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue negotiated a similar arrangement.
The Washington years
Of the 42 acres Wild Burro Rescue occupied at Onalaska, only 32 acres were actually accessible for pasturing burros. Aware that the site could quickly become overcrowded, as more Mojave Desert burros arrived each year, Gene and Diana Chontos fostered out as many burros as they could, and tried to prevent breeding by keeping the jacks and jennies in separate herds.
Since jacks and jennies normally live in separate herds in the wild, this appeared to work temporarily, until all the jacks could be gelded.
For years the only young burros on the premises were the foals of jennies who were already pregnant when recently rescued.
Gene did most of the fundraising, accountability paperwork, and farrier care. But, eighteen years older than Diana, by 2000 he admitted to feeling his age. When their marriage failed, Gene kept a pig and a cow they had acquired, continuing to live at the Onalaska property.
The move to Olancha
Diana took the 120-odd burros to the Olancha site.
Among them were most of the burros who had been fostered out, all of whom eventually returned to Wild Burro Rescue after proving to be more long-lived and costly to look after than middle-aged-to-elderly caretakers anticipated.
The last of the fostered burros returned to Wild Burro Rescue after the move to California.
Meanwhile, photos and video posted by a variety of visitors to Wild Burro Rescue in recent years show many young burros, even babies, indicating that the birth prevention arrangements failed at some point. Severely neglected hoof care, in short, was scarcely the only visible management problem.
“The majority of our burros were already elders” when brought to Olancha, longtime Wild Burro Rescue volunteer and vice president Karen Gilligan posted in a 2016 GoFundMe appeal.
This was not strictly true. Most of the burros taken to Olancha from Onalaska in 2000, or returned to Wild Burro Rescue later, were in the 10-to-15-year age range.
But certainly most of the burros at Wild Burro Rescue were beyond their prime, and at least one, named Poppy, was known to be at least 30 as of 2000.
“Now, 15 years later, they are all approaching 35-40 years old,” Gilligan said. “These burros are unadoptable,” Gilligan acknowledged, “so they need the Wild Burro Rescue sanctuary to live out the remainder of their lives. Many can no longer eat hay, so they depend 100% on equine senior feed, oats and supplements to survive. They are removed from the larger groups and given a corral and shelter of their own where their extra special diet can be provided.”
Gilligan’s GoFundMe appeal raised $16,100 from 316 people over the next 44 months.
This was less than Gilligan estimated was the Wild Burro Rescue operating cost for just one typical month.
No record of euthanasia
Well-managed sanctuaries would likely have euthanized the older burros when they reached a state of decrepitude which, in the wild, would have ensured they would soon fall to predators.
The numbers of burros taken to Olancha, compared to the number of young burros apparently on the premises, indicate that many burros must have died there over the years.
ANIMALS 24-7 found no online record of burros having been euthanized at Wild Burro Rescue, however, before the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue crew in mid-March 2019 euthanized the six who were in the worst condition.