For “Burro Whisperer” Monique Wylde Williams, it’s all about love.
“Burros showed me kindness, patience, joy, generosity, friendship and love when I needed it most,” Williams says. “In the long run, these are the things that matter, and I try to keep my focus there. They are such loving and gentle creatures and by sharing them with others, I can spread the love!”
Williams will bring her love of the sturdy animals she calls the “dogs of the equine world” to Superior in October, as the town is set to host Arizona’s first-ever BurroCross event, the Superior Burro Run.
A unique take on Pack Burro Racing, BurroCross involves human cross-country trail runners leading burros—the Spanish term for donkeys—on a preset course through the desert.
Pack Burro Racing originated in Colorado more than 70 years ago as a historic nod to Colorado’s mining past, so it is a natural event to bring to Arizona, given local mining history and that the state has more wild burros than any other in the U.S.
Williams, a certified burro trainer through the Mustang Heritage Foundation (MHF) for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is on a mission to bring BurroCross to the region and draw attention to the plight of wild burros, and maybe bring a little bit of economic activity as well.
“Arizona is the perfect state for it,” she says. “It’s the largest producer of BLM burros in the country and pack burro racing can help economic development in small towns.”
The nonprofit MHF acts as a conduit for those adopting wild horses and burros from the federal government, providing training for the animals and socializing them for human interaction.
According to information from the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, as of March 1, there were an estimated 6,915 wild burros on Arizona BLM land, eclipsing both California and Nevada, which have 4,727 and 4,187 animals respectively.
Burros have a long and storied history in the mining communities of Arizona, as they were perfectly suited to pre-industrial mining, due in part to their low maintenance and personalities that provided companionship to lone prospectors wandering through the great expanses of the arid southwest.
“They were uniquely suited to the task: they didn’t eat much and didn’t need a lot of water,” says Miami-born author, historian and longtime Inspiration/Freeport-McMoRan employee Virgil Alexander. “They’re hardier than horses, sure-footed and loyal. They could get out to more remote claims.”
That changed in the early days of industrial mining before the advent of mechanical engines, when horses and mules were used because of their size and ability to handle heavier loads.
“Mules were used for hauling freight because they were bigger and stronger,” Alexander says. “The mules would sometimes go blind because they were kept in underground pens most of their lives.”
After large-scale mining became the norm, the humble burro was no longer considered necessary, so in mining communities throughout the southwestern U.S., they were turned out and driven into the desert, where they adapted and grew in numbers.
By the time Arizona became a state in 1912, towns such as Superior and Miami had large burro populations that would sometimes become a burden to residents. The Town of Oatman still has semi-wild burros walking its streets that have been parlayed into a tourist attraction, but for other towns closer to population centers and major thoroughfares, the animals had no place.
Over the course of the next half-century, those burros mixed with animals that were released or escaped from Spanish explorers, ranchers, the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans. Populations exploded in the open expanses, which led to wide-scale and often-inhumane efforts to eradicate them.
In 1971, the U.S. government passed the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act” (Public Law 92-195) to “provide for the necessary management, protection and control of wild horses and burros on public lands.” The bill was signed into law on Dec. 15, 1971 by President Richard M. Nixon and management is under the jurisdiction of the BLM.
The MHF was formed in 2000 and now provides grants through its Trainers Incentive Program to help facilitate the adoption process.
Williams, proprietor of Wylde Burros, receives grant money from MHF to help cover expenses, but the funding is not enough for the work she does. “It’s probably costing me money, actually,” she quips.
While some trainers are in it for the money, she is in it purely for love of the animals and has become a much sought-after resource. In 2018, she trained eight burros and currently has four in her care that are already adopted.
“It’s getting to the point where I have a waiting list,” she explains. “My method is on the burro’s time. I’m careful and picky when I do it. It’s their first experience with people and they remember everything.”
Once Williams gets the burro from a BLM holding facility, she has 90 days to find a home for the animal if it is not already adopted. Her tasks are to gentle the animal to human contact, halter train them and they must tame enough to lift all four hooves.
When she adopted Sugar from a domestic donkey rescue in Benson three years ago, Williams was hooked. Soon, friends were asking her to train their burros and she discovered both the BLM program and burro pack racing in Colorado, which has a 70-year history of the sport. Each year there is a series of three major events with prizes for top racers.
So when Williams proposed the idea to the superior Chamber of Commerce in February, they were all in.
“We had one meeting with Monique and race organizers from Colorado and said ‘This is it,’” Superior Chamber director Sue Anderson says. “We loved it and Superior wants to be the first to do it in Arizona and be the best.”
The idea has caught on, as the initial 50 slots for the race sold out in 36 hours. Ten spots were added, which sold out quickly as well.
“Our event is six or 12 miles,” Williams says. “Normally, 12 miles would be barely acceptable to people who do this, but we wanted a distance that would appeal to people who don’t want to do that much.”
The Superior Burro Run takes place on Saturday, Oct. 12 and will begin with a pre-run ceremony at 9 a.m. on E. Main Street. Race organizers ask that spectators leave dogs and other animals at home.
Representatives from the BLM will be on hand with information about burro adoption for anyone interested.
For more information go to www.superiorarizonachamber.org, the Arizona BurroCross Facebook page, or contact the Superior Chamber at 520-689-0200.
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.