No one's quite sure how the donkeys got to the hills above Moreno Valley. One common story has it that a gentleman rounded up a couple dozen burros in Death Valley and brought them to the Inland Empire back in the 1950s. Other stories credit earlier prospectors or ranchers.
However their ancestors got here, they were fruitful and they multiplied. The picturesque Box Spring Mountains between Riverside and Moreno Valley, and the rolling San Timoteo Badlands to their east, are now home to a number of impressive herds of feral donkeys. Rugged, intelligent animals that are nonetheless largely unafraid of people, the donkeys often venture into the more-developed flatlands in search of food and water.
The part of the Inland Empire where the donkeys live is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and even in this still-slow economy development continues to nibble away at the animals' turf. And that leads to conflict -- made ironically worse by some local residents who really like the donkeys.
The donkeys near Moreno Valley face many threats. Drought takes some each year, whether they starve to death for lack of forage or die of thirst. There are mountain lions in the area, and some foals fall prey to the big cats each year. Those who pay close attention to the individual animals report that some just disappear mysteriously. Illegal hunting, sometimes for meat, and illegal capture for other purposes have been suggested as causes for the disappearances.
But some of the deaths need no explanation. Take stubborn, intelligent, essentially wild animals who see nothing wrong with roaming wherever they please and start building high-speed roads in their habitat, and you will inevitably have roadkill. Make the animals the size of burros, and that roadkill starts posing a risk to the drivers as well as the animals.
According to Wendy Petrunio of the Moreno Valley-based rescue group DonkeyLand, drivers in the hills have become a major threat to the local herds. And some of the donkey's admirers have been making matters worse: by offering the critters treats through their car windows, they've trained the donkeys to see cars as things to be approached rather than avoided.
Petrunio and her colleague, DonkeyLand co-founder Amber LaVonne, are giving me a motorized tour of the hills so that I can get a look at the donkeys. A series of winter rains have greened up the countryside, and donkeys graze in apparent contentment throughout the Box Springs and the Badlands. But along one two-lane stretch of country road north of Moreno Valley, a group of young males -- "jacks" -- loiters within a few yards of the pavement.
The reason soon becomes apparent. As we approach the group, another car pulls up onto the shoulder in front of them. A few of the jacks amble over to the car as its passenger-side window rolls down. It almost looks like a drug deal in progress, but the people in the car don't have anything more nefarious in mind than making friends with the donkeys.
For their part, the donkeys have clearly been lured to past cars by the offer of carrots and other treats. That's a problem in itself, as handouts are less healthy fare for the donkeys than the wild grasses and herbs they walk past on their way to the curb. But it also encourages the animals to hang out in the middle of the road... and not every driver will stop.
Petrunio climbs out of the SUV, yells at the donkeys and waves her arms, chases them a ways into the field. They retreat about 30 yards from the roadside. In ten minutes, when we approach the spot from the other direction, she has to do it again.
DonkeyLand has lately been campaigning to put a stop sign at one high-traffic intersection north of Moreno Valley, at Pigeon Pass Road and Hidden Springs Drive, where a convergence of burro and wildlife crossings, a nearby school, and high-speed traffic heading downhill from Box Springs Mountain Park makes a potentially deadly combination for donkeys and schoolkids alike.
That's especially true given that Pigeon Pass Road narrows from five lanes to two just uphill from the intersection -- at a blind curve that ends at a crossing commonly used by the burros.
LaVonne pilots the SUV past the school. Moms and dads are picking up their grade schoolers in mid-afternoon. Beyond the school lie the terrra cotta roofs of the adjacent housing development. Beyond that, across Pigeon Pass Road, burros nosh contentedly on the spring greenery.
It's a classic California scene, in a way: suburban development on one side of the road, wildlife habitat on the other, and the fact that the wildlife here is introduced rather than native doesn't change the feeling all that much.
That's a feeling LaVonne and Petrunio would like to preserve. "We're not just in this for the donkeys," LaVonne tells me. "They're important to us, but we live here too. Making this neighborhood safer for the donkeys also makes it safer for the kids, and calmer for the rest of us who live here."
It's not going to be easy. Development continues to encroach on the donkey's habitat, including a 700-unit housing development in what was formerly a prime grazing area east of Grand Terrace and Highgrove. Less available habitat, and lowered habitat value in what's left as the drought continues, will likely mean more donkeys venturing into developed neighborhoods in the Inland Empire.
All the more reason not to tempt them with carrots when they arrive.