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Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentaries: Saving Tonto The Burro

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The Frecker Family
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Wild burros have been living in the Grand Canyon for well over 100 years. They have a reputation as being ornery and stubborn...and destructive to the environment because they overgraze. Back in the 1980's, the Park Service tried to tackle the wild burro problem by allowing people to trap and relocate them before wildlife officials shot the rest. At least one burrow was captured. And, as commentator Scott Thybony tells us, that lucky burro went on to live a life that no one could have imagined.

It was mid- July and oven hot as a father and his four sons descended the Grandview Trail on a mission. Larry Frecker and his family had driven from Indiana with an improbable plan to rescue wild burros slated to be destroyed. They were unfamiliar with both the harsh conditions below the rim, and the animals they intended to trap. "When they started," his daughter Juanita Bueter told me, "we never thought we would see them again."

Two months before, Larry was at home on his 90 acre farm reading the Sunday papers when a story caught his eye. "A group of sharpshooters," the report began, "armed with high-powered, silencer-equipped rifles will be helicoptered into the Grand Canyon...to locate and kill some 400 burros that roam wild." They had descended from pack animals abandoned by early prospectors, and had thrived to the point of overgrazing the inner canyon desert. The Park Service had studied the problem for years, and in 1980 decided the animals had to be eliminated. Only one chance remained for a reprieve: For a period of 60 days, the public was invited to capture as many as possible and bring them out alive. After that, the burros would be shot.

The 48 year old farmer decided to act. His family loved animals, taking in the injured, sheltering strays, raising plenty of farm animals, and rounding it out with a bison and a bear. Larry liked a challenge, and now set his 7 kids to weaving a net, 50 feet long, using twine salvaged from broken hay bales. He then wrote the Park Service informing them of his plans, and the rangers responded by warning of the dangers involved. "They told him," Juanita said, "No, you better not do this. You guys will die down there." Undeterred, the family packed into a pickup with a camper top and headed west, pulling a stock trailer.

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Credit Terry Frecker
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Capturing Tonto on the Tonto Plateau of the Grand Canyon.

The father and sons - ranging from 17 to 22 years old - now found themselves in strange surroundings a long way from home. Hiking steadily downward they reached the Tonto Plateau west of Horseshoe Mesa. After taking a day to survey the situation, they cut out 8 burros and chased them up a ravine. The panicked animals rounded a bend and suddenly ran into the handmade net stretched across a narrows. Half became tangled in the netting and the other half escaped. Having managed to actually catch a few wild burros surprised the humans as much as the animals. They glanced at each other and started laughing. "It was just a crazy idea," Larry told a reporter.

Wild eyed, the trapped animals struggled fiercely to escape. "They kicked like lightning," Larry said. He realized the impossibility of removing all of them, so chose only the youngest - a 300 pound jack - and let the others go. Too stubborn to be led up the trail, the burro was airlifted from the canyon by helicopter. And, since he was captured on the Tonto Plateau, they named him, "Tonto".

The family trailered him back to the green pastures of Indiana. "He's going to think he's died and gone to heaven," Larry said. The rescued burro soon became a favorite pet, letting the kids pile on his back for rides. And assuming the role of a watch dog, he brayed whenever somebody came to the house.

He had lush pastures to graze and plenty of animal companionship, but something was missing. Tonto the burro, far from the Grand Canyon, kept to the one place reminding him of home - the bare, gravel driveway.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.