Years ago a herd of small donkeys, or burros, came to call a piece of high ground at Lake McClure home. It was dry due to the historic statewide drought.
But two years ago, runoff from an above-average precipitation year helped fill the lake – and cut off that piece of high ground. The herd left before it became an island. But one burro was left behind, perhaps due to a front right leg injury or deformity.
Now, as water levels continue to rise, local fishermen and residents led by former Merced police detective Harry Markarian are trying to relocate the donkey.
But that effort has stalled as several local, state and federal agencies try to figure out who is responsible for the move, how it should happen, and if the donkey should even be relocated.
“This is actually so simple,” Markarian said about a planned rescue effort by about 10 people, including donkey experts and a veterinarian, that was shut down after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said it may not be legal.
Markarian said he has made calls to several agencies in the past two years to figure out the best way to handle the situation, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Merced Irrigation District and Mariposa County Animal Control.
“(The agencies) are all confused. To me, it’s crazy,” he said.
Should the Lake McClure donkey be rescued?
The burro, affectionately called Hillary by locals, is being supported by fishermen who bring it bales of hay and oats as rising waters limit her food supply. But that can’t last forever, Markarian said.
Markarian, a private investigator, last week set up a GoFundMe to pay for an extraction, which would have seen rescuers sedate the donkey, get her on a boat and ferry her across the lake.
Hillary would then likely be taken to a sanctuary shelter because there are doubts the herd will accept her again, and worry that she would be easy prey for nearby mountain lions if she’s on her own.
But Markarian acknowledged the operation could be dangerous to Hillary, a concern among the leading agencies, biologists and veterinarians and a reason why authorities quashed the idea. That forced Markarian to suspend the fundraiser.
“We’ve talked to a number of folks, veterinarians, about this,” said Bob Stafford, biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Unless there’s something serious going on, the idea is to leave it where it’s at. ... It seems to be in good condition” in spite of its leg condition.
The merits of relocating Hillary depends on many issues, according to Eric Davis, a veterinary expert specializing in burros and horses at UC Davis.
On one hand, if the island is too small to support the donkey, the right thing would be to move it, Davis said. And while donkeys are sometimes solitary, they often seek to socialize with a few other donkeys.
But capturing Hillary has its complications, Davis said. Tranquilizing it with a dart and trying to move it off the island has “serious risks.” Other options include orally sedating it, which would take time to have effect. But there is fear that on an island, the burro is a drowning risk.
The other question is where the donkey could be housed after she is taken off the island. Many long-term sanctuary options are full or may not be able to take the cost of sheltering another donkey, Davis said.
The risk of Hillary harming herself during a relocation effort was concerning, MID spokesperson Mike Jensen said.
“There doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat to the animal,” Jensen said.
But Jensen acknowledged there were still a lot of questions about the situation, noting that the agency’s expertise is in providing water and power — not the well-being of wild burros.
Markarian said he understood the safety concerns. But he said the local fishermen who have tended to Hillary have seen water swallow up the island over the past two years and know what limited time is left for the burro.
Even if a dry spell hits the state, it could take several years for waters to recede enough for Hillary to get off the island herself, he said.
Stafford, who said he was experienced in determining range conditions, plans to tour the island this week with Markarian to determine the level of food available to Hillary.
The department also has formed a committee to research the situation and advise what’s the best course of action.
Davis suggested someone should immediately build a catch pen on the island and place food in it so that if or when a decision is made to relocate Hillary, the pen can be a safe option to minimize harm to her during the move.
Whose responsibility is it?
While the leading agencies advised Markarian to put his rescue efforts on hold, they are at odds as to who is responsible for Hillary.
The situation is rare, Stafford said.
In the 28 years he has been with the state agency, Stafford said he could only recall one instance of authorities relocating a stranded animal — a bear that showed up on Morro Rock in the City of Morro Bay. The bear was relocated amid concerns the animal could try to cross over Highway 1 and threaten itself and motorists.
Department of Fish and Wildlife code states “it’s unlawful to kill, wound, capture or have in possession any undomesticated burro.”
But according to government code, an undomesticated burro could be removed by a local animal control agency if it strays onto private property.
Some local officials claimed the federal Bureau of Land Management owns the land that the burro occupies.
“The Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the burro in question,” spokesperson Kristie Mitchell states in an email response. She deferred questions back to the Bureau of Land Management because the Sheriff’s Office’s position was that the island, and responsibility of the burro, belongs to the federal agency.
Mitchell cited the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which protects herds of wild horses and burros in specific grazing areas.
But the land Hillary and her herd were grazing wasn’t one of those areas, said Amy Dumas from the Bureau of Land Management.
“We all want to help this animal, but we have to figure out who has lawful ownership of the animal in order for that entity to get permission to handle the animal,” Dumas said, emphasizing that the burro wasn’t the responsibility of the federal agency.
It’s the Merced Irrigation District that owns the land, Davis said. But he acknowledged that Hillary falls into a gray area of the law.
“Feral donkeys fall into a kind of a strange category,” Davis said, noting they weren’t considered wildlife or property in the eyes of the law. “This issue keeps going around and around in circles. ... It’s sort of a glitch in the law and jurisdiction for who is responsible.”
MID also has been deferring action on the donkey relocation to burro experts like Davis, Jensen said. So far, the consensus has been to leave Hillary on the island at its current conditions.
Markarian said he wants to respect and follow the law, which is why he put the local rescue efforts on hold. But if he can’t rescue Hillary, he urged the agencies to do the right thing and relocate the burro, he said.
“Those that are saying ‘let nature take its course,’ that’s a cop-out,” Markarian said, decrying what he described as a bureaucratic mess. “Where’s your human heart? If we see an animal in distress, and it has issues, we should take care of it.”