Newborn foals are disappearing from the wild burro herds that roam the rocky hills above ranches and rural homes near Moreno Valley.
Residents in the area have noticed the occasional disappearance of foals over the years, but in the past few months as many as five have vanished from one band in the Pigeon Pass area. Some people familiar with the burro families are trying to solve the mystery of what’s happening to the little ones.
Amber-LeVonne Koko, 38, who runs a Moreno Valley burro rescue operation called DonkeyLand, said several young foals, only days old, have vanished suddenly. Koko and some other residents said they suspect that people are taking the young animals.
“Some of the residents have said they believe somebody is doing it for a business,” Koko said. If that is the case, she said, she’s unsure whether the animals might be sold as pets or for food.
Animal experts say it’s more likely that large predators are responsible of the disappearing burros.
John Welsh, spokesman for Riverside County animal control, said the county’s field services commander is pretty sure that nature is the culprit.
“She summed it up as predation,” Welsh said, “either a mountain lion or a pack of coyotes. A momma will protect her baby but not if a mountain lion comes through.”
Koko said she hopes that is the case.
“If it is, it’s part of the wildlife,” she said, “we accept that.”
However, she said residents have found little evidence that predators are to blame. Both she and neighbors have tried to find signs of a kill.
“We’ve searched for hours, for blood or tracks,” she said. They’ve found no tracks, no blood and no carcasses, apart from a foal they knew was stillborn.
Koko’s neighbor, Lydia Thompson, 51, said she is convinced there is a human hand in the disappearances. She said she has seen vans in the area that she considered to be suspicious on several occasions.
“Somebody’s taking them, for what reason I don’t know,” Thompson said. “We’ve been noticing in the past couple of years, the mother have their babies and theyr’re two or three days old, all of a sudden they’re gone. Is it my opinion that they are being taken? Yes. Can I prove it? No.”
Thompson’s home is perched on a hillside, giving her a wide view of the canyon area at the top of Pigeon Pass. She has lived there for 13 years, and like many of the area residents has come to know the burros in the wild herds that graze the mostly private land in the hills that separate Moreno Valley from Loma Linda, Colton and Grand Terrace.
Officials with animal agencies said they were unsure what would motivate anyone to poach young burros.
Alex Neibergs, a horse and burro specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Ridgecrest, said capturing the animals would not be easy.
“It doesn’t sound plausible unless somebody goes and ropes it from horseback,” he said. “They’re pretty elusive.”
Thompson isn’t so sure. The Pigeon Pass burros are not as skittish about humans as some wild herds.
“If you corner the mother, it’s easy to take the baby, if you know what you’re doing,” she said.
Population estimates of the burros that wander the hills north of Moreno Valley range from 150 to 300.
Their origin is not well known. But it is believed that a Reche Canyon rancher had acquired about 20 burros from Death Valley and turned them loose in the area in the middle of the last century. Some residents find the animals charming. For others, they are a nuisance.
Brian Cronin, director of San Bernardino County animal control, said his personnel have been talking with people who have small ranches in the area and trying to assess the herds in recent months.
“The complaints, while we’ve been out there, are that the burros have been grazing on private property or eating (the rancher’s) feed supply,” Cronin said.
The burros also can be a hazard for motorists, especially those unaware that a burro might be standing in their path when they round a sudden curve. Caution signs showing a burro silhouette are posted along Pigeon Pass Road.
Koko’s ranch sits at the end of a long dirt driveway, between Pigeon Pass Road and the highest ridges of the hills north of Box Springs Mountain. Several large enclosures hold burros that have been injured or orphaned. She estimates she has spent $75,000 on the nonprofit corporation she started in 2010. The organization’s website is www.donkeyland.org.
Beyond the metal-tube corrals, a group of about two dozen burros, one of the local herds, grazes quietly. A bachelor herd of six males hovers around the front gate of the property.
Koko puts water out for the animals but said she tries to respect their wildness.
When an animal is injured or ill, she said, “we try to keep them in the wild instead of bringing them in.”
Wendy Putrino, 57, is co-director of DonkeyLand. She does small animal and horse rescue at her Mira Loma home but couldn’t resist getting involved with the burros as well.
“The first time you see them, they just touch your heart,” Putrino said. “Once you start hanging around them, they’re magic. You can’t help but want to do something. It’s our duty to save these donkeys.”
That goes beyond finding out what’s happening to the young foals.
Putrino and Koko said they are putting up posters and trying to get the county to install signs to build public awareness about the burros. Very often, they said, people will drive into the area to see the wild herds and often bring food that they offer to the animals. Some of the burros, looking for food, approach cars that have slowed in the road. The two women say that burros in the roadway are a danger to drivers and burros.
In 2005, Saroeutrh Phim, 21, was killed when her car struck a burro in Reche Canyon.
More often, such accidents kill only the burros. When that happens, Putrino said, the herd usually will surround the downed animal.
“They will come together and bray and mourn that donkey,” she said.
Mother donkeys react similarly when their foals are suddenly gone, Koko said. She has heard their cries.
She’s troubled not only by the foals that have disappeared but by what she believes is a shortage of foals in the herds across the canyon. She and her neighbors have recently installed surveillance cameras, hoping to discover what is happening to the young animals.
“We don’t know,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing this. We just want to know.”