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Donkey gentlers take on challenge to ready skittish animals for adoption

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: JILL REHKOPF SMITH - Heather Longshore of Gaston works with Bugs to ready him for the adoption event this Sunday, July 13. In the past few days, she said, the donkey has warmed up to her and let her touch him.Cali was terrified for the first month and a half at her new home in Vernonia.

It was a long way from her family in the Bureau of Land Management corrals in California where she was born. The 4-year-old donkey landed at Leslie Seeberger’s home as part of the 2014 Great Burro Turnaround, a project of the Pacific Wild Horse Club (PWHC) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which is designed to tame wild donkeys and find good homes for them.

After being selected by the PWHC, handlers are matched randomly with donkeys. They have about 100 days to gentle the burro and train it for the turnaround event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Sunday, July 13, at the Yamhill County Fairgrounds in McMinnville, where 10 previously wild burros will compete for prizes and then be available for adoption through competitive bid.

For the first 45 days, “she wouldn’t have anything to do with me,” Seeberger said of Cali. “She was terrified of me.”

Seeberger was just about to give up when one day, she went out to the barn with some carrots in her pocket. The timid donkey she had housed for the last month and a half — that shied away whenever she tried to get closer — started following her.

“Since then we’ve been friends,” Seeberger said. It turns out, the jenny (female donkey) loves carrots. And now she loves being petted and scratched, too. “She wouldn’t have anything to do with me for so long.”

Seeberger has worked with horses and mules for almost her whole life, riding in competitions and for pleasure — even participating in a similar program gentling BLM Mustangs — but burros are a challenge, she said.

Forest Grove resident Tyler Glineck, 19, agrees. Glineck participated in Future Farmers of America at Forest Grove High School, and has been riding since his freshman year there. He and his friend, Brandon Sox, are both trying to gentle wild donkeys.

Glinek, who keeps his burro at Elk Ridge Stables in Gaston, started out slow with Zephyr. The first few days he just tried to touch and start grooming him. “The more you work with them, the more they put their trust in you,” Glinek said. “But it is challenging to get them to do things without having to reward them each time. They’re very, very smart, and they like getting their treats.”

Heather Longshore, 20, has also trained horses before, but just like Seeberger, Sox and Glinek, she’s found her donkey, Bugs, to be “a bit of a challenge.”

“Burros are not the same as horses —- they’re pretty much the opposite actually,” Longshore said. “Horses, you can reprimand if they do something naughty. If you reprimand donkeys they take it personally and they’ll shut down and won’t do anything.”

Recently, though, the Gaston resident feels like she’s made a breakthrough. “He’s loosened up in the last few days,” Longshore said. “He’s very shy and very independent, but he’s become a little more laid-back recently.”

She has used lots of treats, petting and praising to win over Bugs, like she might do with a dog.

Longshore is taking her final few days before the auction to make Bugs as safe as possible for a loving family, she said, and more comfortable with people.

Heidi Hopkins, Platero Project manager, compared donkeys to the Labradors of equines. Once they form a relationship with their owners, they are loyal and dependable companions.

“Everyone thinks they’re stubborn and that they kick, but they’re nothing like what the general public thinks of them as,” she said. “We want to raise the status of the wild burro because it’s an animal that deserves our respect. This country was settled partly on the backs of burros.”Bugs used to shy away from Heather Longshore when she tried to touch him. Now he enjoys being petted and will even jump up on a pedestal on her command.

About 1,300 burros currently live in BLM corrals.

Burros and Mustangs in the wild “live in extraordinarily harsh conditions,” according to Hopkins. Wild equines often inhabit desert-like areas where food and water is scarce. “However, burros seem to be very excellent reproducers.”

A vaccine that would sterilize horses and burros in the wild is currently being researched and part of the Platero Project funding.

The rate of wild burro adoptions has decreased over the last five years, which Hopkins speculates is partly due to the poor economy and increased hay prices.

“It’s been so incredible,” Seeberger said. “I’ve learned more from this little burro than from anything else I’ve done.”

“Once you’re able to get through to them, they’re a great animal,” Glinek said. “I hope they go to a good home where they love them as much as we do.”

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