Saving Asses in High Places
Burros Get Second Chance at The Ass Ranch
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
There’s Lilly, and Sweetpea, Bling, and Pando. Say hi to Bella, and Millie. There was Dinky, and who could ever forget Susie, as it all started with her. One day about twenty years ago now, Susie-the-Burro was discovered stuck in a bog with her sweet young son Pando – only 7 months old at the time – braying loudly at her side. His calls were heard and the pair was rescued and would become the first residents to check into a little piece of heaven located off County Road 5A, out towards the fish hatchery.
Welcome to The Ass Ranch, located in picturesque Lake County, Colorado where there’s still some wild left in the west. This 52-acre prime ranch and farming land sits in the shadow of Colorado’s two highest peaks – Mts Elbert and Massive – and was once part of the historic Cavalli Ranch, one of the first dairy farms in Leadville. But over years as the elders passed on, the property was divided and distributed to the next generation. Some stayed, and some left.
Mary and John Smith decided to stay and in 1999 The Ass Ranch was born when burros Susie and Pando became the first rescues, fulfilling a lifelong time dream for John, the quieter, more stoic one in the partnership.
“Out of respect for Grandma, we didn’t formally name it The Ass Ranch until she passed on,” explains Mary Smith during a recent visit. “But in the end, she knew, and she thought it was funny.”
And while the name generally gets a chuckle, the mission behind the operations is serious business, and for many of these beasts of burden, a life-saver.
“She was rescued from a horrible man in Utah,” explains Terri Gooch who boards her burro Lilly at the ranch. “She had a halter that was embedded in her head. But she’s come a long way since she’s been out here.”
Over the years as word spread about the facility, animal rescues were referred to The Ass Ranch and quite a few have come in that way. But for many, it’s a Burro Rescue program in place by the Bureau of Land Mangement (BLM) that provides these animals with a second chance. In fact, since 1971, the BLM has placed more than 240,000 wild horses and burros into private care. And to sweeten the pot and encourage more prospective owners, the Adoption Incentive Program provides up to $1,000 to adopt an untrained wild horse or burro from the BLM.
The goal of the program is to reduce BLM’s recurring costs to care for unadopted and untrained wild horses and burros while helping to confront a growing overpopulation of wild horses and burros on fragile public rangelands. Qualified adopters must meet standard requirements for owning and caring for a wild horse and burro, including specific facility parameters to ensure the safety and health of the animals. And that’s where The Ass Ranch comes in.
“I’ve always wanted a donkey, especially since I moved to Leadville,” Gooch says. “I didn’t know anything about donkeys, I just knew I wanted one, so I’ve learned everything here. The Ass Ranch is a real village.” During this interview, Gooch shared that she was waiting for the next addition to her herd: Millie, a wild burro scheduled to arrive in a few days after successfully completing a training program to take some of the wild out of her ass. She is from a recent roundup held in Bishop, Calf.
“It used to be just Ken Chlouber,” states Smith referring to former State Senator, founder of the Leadville Trail 100, and avid burro racer. “The sport has grown so much in Leadville over the past four years. Oh my goodness, there are so many people who have burros now, it’s really kinda crazy.”
And all perfectly legal as the topic of zoning came up in discussion. While currently boarding her burro Lilly at The Ass Ranch, Gooch and her husband plan to move their growing burro family to their 3-acre property in the Mountain Pines Subdivision which will allow up to 7 donkeys. While zoning restrictions concerning the beasts of burden are a bit more buttoned-up in Leadville, Smith did note that during the two weeks prior to the International Pack Burro race in Leadville, asses are allowed to be corralled within the city limits.
So as the popularity of burro racing grows, and the word continues to spread about the sheer joy these animals seem to bring their owners expect to see more of them in America’s highest city. And for every jack and jennie who finds their forever home, a stall opens up for another rescue at The Ass Ranch, which seems to be at capacity as of August 2019.
“Well if it were up to me . .” Smith trails off, adding, but John says we’ve reached our limit. “Except if something horrible comes up, I’ll probably take it,” she adds with a passionate twinkle in her eye followed by a solid nudge of support from one of the donkeys standing directly behind her.
But the reality is that this historic family ranch requires the couple to work their asses off (sorry, Grandma!) The feeding, cleaning, and care for these animals is palpable. In fact, it’s good for readers to know that the Smiths are open to help. Their daily chore list is significant and can be physically challenging.
So, consider this a shout out to the local 4H Club or other youth-oriented organizations that could provide some regular, ongoing support. Why, if only there was an alternative high school located right across the street whose students could do more than simply pull down their draws and take a selfie in front of the ranch’s name gate to send to all their friends back home. It’s great to get into the woods and climb mountains, but lending a hand to neighbors doing good things just down the road provides lifelong community values that have been deeply rooted in Leadville Today by these generational families.
However, if you’re still not convinced then be sure to be on historic Harrison Avenue in downtown Leadville on Sunday, August for the 69th Annual International Pack Burro Race. Starting at 9 a.m. the burros and racers will weigh-in at the corner of 4th Street. It’s a great opportunity to see these beautiful creatures up close and talk to the racers about the sport as well as the joy that burro ownership has brought to their lives. And then be sure to stick around for the start of the races, beginning at 11 a.m. as Leadville Boom Days celebrate 7 decades of Haulin Ass!
The Ass Ranch is located at 900 County Road 5A in Leadville, Colorado 80461. While they are generally more concerned with hoof prints rather than digital footprints, Mary & John Smith can be reached by phone at 719-486-8110.
Colorado journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and SaguacheToday.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org