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Burro-Eradication Plan Meets Resistance

Times Staff Writer

If you ask Epifanio Flores, his burro isn’t a beast of burden. It’s just a burden.

“They eat 10 times what a cow eats and they are nothing but trouble,” the peasant farmer said as he took some shade in the baking central plaza of this agricultural town in the southern part of Durango state.

He is among the thousands of Mexican farmers scratching out a living amid mesquite and cactus who have switched from the once-indispensable burros to pickup trucks and tractors to do their farm work. For Flores, the long-eared and long-revered emblem of Mexican rural life has become just another mouth to feed.

So, like many other peasants, Flores simply lets his burro roam this picturesque area, which served as the backdrop for several Hollywood Westerns, including “The Old Gringo” and “The Sons of Katie Elder.”

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Now the state of Durango says the feral burros -- 100,000 at last count -- have proliferated to the point that they are consuming unacceptably large amounts of pastureland that could sustain “productive” livestock such as cows, sheep and goats. The state blames the wild beasts for everything from increased erosion to a lowering of the water tables.

But when it announced plans to “regulate” the burros, animal rights activists from Egypt to Uruguay howled about a possible burrocidio, or mass extermination of the animals.

The proposal, announced in May but now on hold, seemed simple enough: a subsidized plan giving farmers incentives to round up the beasts and exchange them for calves, goats or sheep.

After being turned in, the burros would be “regulated” -- that is, taken to the local slaughterhouses and converted into their only commercially viable forms: dog food, meat for zoo animals, or sausage for human consumption.

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The plan drew solid support from Mexico’s two largest peasant labor unions. Raul Castaneda, general secretary of the Durango unit of the National Peasants Council, said: “Burros cause more damage than benefit. Our members are completely behind the de-burroization.”

But after the newspaper El Siglo of Durango city wrote about the plan, and published it on its website, more than 100 cyber-cries of protest were sent to the newspaper from far corners of the world. The newspaper’s poll of about 100 Durango residents showed 95% thought the burros should be spared.

The wave of sympathy surprised local officials. Now a leading member of the state’s Chamber of Deputies says the plan has been suspended.

“I applaud the response. How great that society is paying attention!” said lawmaker Oscar Garcia Barron, who heads the lower chamber’s agriculture committee.

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The plan struck a nerve in this state where burros are an integral and fondly regarded part of history.

Durango historian Manuel Lozoya Cigueroa said that until recent years, much of the state was inaccessible except to farmers who had burros to carry supplies, farm products, firewood and water.

Burros also played an important part in Durango’s mining industry, the second largest in the country, lugging supplies up the Sierra Madre to the mines, and silver, gold and other metals down from them.

Several Mexican states observe National Burro Day on June 1. The town of Otumba in the state of Mexico plays host to burro races and awards a prize to the “most beautifully adorned” animal.

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“In all of Mexico, in all of Mesoamerica, in fact, burros had an important role as beast of burden from the 16th century on to the beginning of the 20th century,” Lozoya Cigueroa said. “But they have been replaced by the internal combustion engine.”

Now burros are just part of the scenery, visible at nearly every turn on Durango’s rural roads. To tourists, they are an adorable fixture with their docile eyes, furry ears and loud heehawing across canyons.

For farmers and cattlemen, however, they have become pests, ravenously consuming scarce pastureland like giant locusts.

Reynaldo Sanchez Gallego, secretary of the Mezquital cattlemen’s association, has little time for the animals.

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“Burros have no value. That’s why no one cares about them,” said Sanchez Gallego. “They eat more than they are worth.”

Francisco Ibarra is a livestock dealer who buys horses for a slaughterhouse about 100 miles to the east in Fresnillo, in Zacatecas state, where many of the Durango animals would end up. He said he isn’t authorized by the owner to buy burros. There’s just no demand, he said.

“The cost of killing a typical burro and a horse is the same, but a horse has twice the meat that a burro does, so the commercial potential of the burro is less,” Ibarra said, adding that the number of burros he buys and sells has dropped 90% over the last five years. “There really isn’t a market for them.”

Despite the burros’ drawbacks, many peasants are reluctant to give up the beasts because they regard them as pets, like a dog or a cat.

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“Many peasants feel affection for their burros, at least enough not to just give them away,” said the peasant council’s Castaneda. He said a typical burro would sell for less than $15, hardly worth the cost of corralling and transporting the animals.

Jose de Jesus Munoz Ramos, who as state secretary of agriculture announced the culling plan, said he still hoped the exchange would be instituted, perhaps later this year.

He said the plan was misunderstood by animal rights advocates and that no extermination of burros was planned, just a “regulation” of them by means that have always been available to get rid of surplus livestock. He insisted that the state was merely providing an incentive because the market was no longer doing the job, and because the animals had become an environmental hazard.

“Extermination is a word that applies to what was done with the gray wolf 40 years ago, and which unfortunately has contributed to this overabundance of wild burros that we suffer from today,” Munoz Ramos said. “If those who are against the program could only see the damage to pastureland that burros are doing, the silt they are adding to our reservoirs, they might change their minds.”

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Castaneda said the burro exchange plan could work if the terms were lucrative enough. “Then, suddenly, a lot of these ‘wild’ burros that no one wants would have a lot of owners.”


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