Photo courtesy of Colorado State University
Ellie, a mammoth donkey thought to have led a fellow donkey and three horses to safety from a Colorado wildfire, is checked over by Colorado State University veterinary students Darcy Moreland and Oneal Peters.
Some 200 livestock evacuated and rescued from a persistent northern Colorado wildfire have received free medical care from a team of veterinarians led by Dr. Brian Miller of the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The ongoing wildfire has burned more than 130 square miles in two weeks and ranks as the second-largest in Colorado history.
The so-called High Park Fire began June 9 and burned mountainous terrain where many horses and other large animals are pastured. Livestock and people alike have taken refuge at a facility called The Ranch at Loveland, the designated evacuation center and disaster response headquarters.
"We've seen about 150 horses, and probably about 40 alpacas, llamas, sheep and goats," Miller recounted late last week. "The biggest thing they have is dehydration. A few have had some lacerations from beating around the bushes, some smoke inhalation, and there were a few that had some damage from being a little too close to some heat. Some had it in the muzzle a little bit, and there were some minor burns. There was nothing big in terms of large burned areas on the body."
Assisting Miller are students who are normally on rotation with him, other CSU veterinarians and many volunteer veterinarians from local private practices.
Miller said he knows of no livestock deaths directly related to the wildfire, but has heard reports of lost animals, mostly sheep and goats.
Six of the animals taken to The Ranch belonged to Greg Van Hare, who lives in Loveland. From September through May, Van Hare keeps the two donkeys and four draft horses in the back yard of his 3.5-acre home, but during the summer they go to pasture at the home of Mike and Sharon Guli, who live in nearby Bellevue. When the Gulis learned they had to evacuate, they called Van Hare, who set out to retrieve the animals. But he was stopped by authorities at Paradise Park Road, the first road to be closed. Van Hare couldn't reach his horse trailer.
Smoke was everywhere.
"Oh man, that was hard but it was a blessing in disguise," Van Hare said, "because we didn't have to make a safety decision about heading into that hot area. They said ‘No, you can't go in,’ and that was tough, but it was nice to have someone make that decision for us instead of us trying to make a hard decision that we shouldn't."
At The Ranch, the Gulis let authorities know that six animals had been left on their land. County officials were sent to get them.
Two donkeys and three horses were huddled together in a yet-unburned part of the pasture, which is situated in a valley. One of them is a mammoth donkey named Ellie, who is as big as a horse, with an ear-tip-to-ear-tip "wing span" of 32 inches. She is the undisputed leader of the pack — Van Hare says that in the past she has chased off a bull elk, a young moose and a black bear.
From the looks of it, Ellie kept most of the animals together against their natural instincts, Van Hare said.
"We're assuming Ellie kept them together with Brett the old man, our 21-year-old Percheron draft horse," Van Hare mused. "There are 40 acres with hills on either side, and heavy trees. These animals are hard-wired for flight, and when something bad happens they run. There was a fire coming in, so why didn't they run? A two-strand wire fence is not a deterrent for draft horses. They could have bolted and run. There are three ponds on the pastures. Those ponds were almost completely drained, so the helicopters did water drops and a bomber dropped slurry. Horses are hard-wired not to stick around. All we can figure is they (Ellie and Brett) kept the herd together."
There was one exception: A fourth horse belonging to Van Hare ended up about five miles down the road, later discovered with some other horses. Authorities brought him to The Ranch, too. Van Hare thinks he may have jumped the fence, as there were no marks on him.
In examining the draft horses, veterinarians at The Ranch found singed hair on the tips of their tails. The two donkeys had singed whiskers and singed beard and ear hairs. These clues suggest the horses stood with their backs to the fire while the donkeys faced it head on or perhaps were surprised by it.
For Van Hare and his family, worries about the fire, fears that the animals were lost, and finally, relief at their rescue made for an emotional roller-coaster ride. They're grateful that ride came to a safe stop.
”Some folks still don't have an answer on their animals," Van Hare said. "If they've bolted, some will likely never be found. We like our happy story."
The herd stayed at The Ranch for five days, after which Van Hare brought them home to Loveland to make space for other animals coming in.
The fire, said to be most the destructive in Colorado history, has destroyed 248 homes, according a Denver Post report. Among those lost was the Gulis' place in Bellevue where the Van Hare pack had been pastured.
The newspaper reported that 57 homes burned during the weekend in the Glacier View/Hewlett Gulch area, some 25 miles by road northwest of Bellevue. One of the homes belonged to Kris Paige, a certified veterinary technician, and her husband. In an interview today with the VIN News Service, Paige said the couple had been evacuated four times in the past month.
"We knew we were in fire country so we built our house with a metal roof, concrete siding and a 200-yard perimeter," Paige said. But this last time, she said, "The perimeter didn't stop it."
Lost along with the house was a barn, a cat and five generations' worth of antiques. Saved were a second cat, four dogs and 11 llamas.
Paige said friends on the East Coast are taking three of her four Akbash dogs. Her llamas are "scattered around the county" with friends and at The Ranch. Her adult children are tapping their contacts to find a place for them to stay because no hotel rooms are available in the area.