Sure It Was Donkey Work but Cleveland Amory and His Crew Saved the Grand Canyon Burros

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Three thousand feet deep in the earth, the majestic stillness of the Grand Canyon is shattered by the chop-chop of helicopter blades. Two wild burros take flight in terror, careening over a steep ridge. The helicopter heads after them, herding the donkeys sheep-dog fashion toward cowboys on horseback. Whirling ropes over their heads, the riders lasso the burros and then gently tie their legs. As the copter hovers above, the cowboys secure the burros—a mother and her yearling—in a hammock-like sling.

Cleveland Amory, his familiar face shaded under a beaten black hat, crouches beside the burros, patting them affectionately. When the whirly-bird hauls the animals away to a corral three miles distant, Amory grins. "Well," he says in a bourbon-and-sandpaper voice, "looks like we did it after all."

What Amory, 63, and his colleagues managed was airlifting 580 burros, descendants of abandoned pack animals, out of the Grand Canyon, thus saving them from extermination. The project began two years ago, when the National Park Service decided that the burros were overgrazing and causing rock slides, imperiling the precarious ecology of the canyon. The government's solution: Kill off the animals.

The rangers were not prepared for the fury of the curmudgeonly Amory. He once got so angry watching a Mexican bullfight that he left his seat, picked up a heavy cushion and bopped the matador with it. Later, figuring that organization would prove to be more effective—if less cathartic—than public beatings, Amory formed the Fund for Animals. When one of the group's field agents alerted Amory to the Park Service's final solution to the burro problem, he went to work in the canyons of New York to organize a rescue.

Amory corralled champion roper Dave Ericsson, 40, and Texan Jerry Owens, 39, to run the roundup operation. And a burro refugee camp was set up at the Fund's Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler, Texas. The mission seemed all but impossible: Fewer than two dozen burros had been relocated in the previous 90 years. Undaunted by Park Service doubters, the group obtained a permit and went to work last July.

Since summer temperatures in the canyon regularly reach 125° F at midday, Ericsson and his assistants chased the animals in the early morning, then rested and worked another shift at night. "Roping by moonlight ain't the easiest thing in the world," Ericsson observed. Still, they lifted 45 out in the first three weeks and by the end of the year had moved 320.

On March 18 Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt hiked three hours into the canyon for the final roundup. "I was a skeptic," Babbitt concedes. "I didn't see how this could be done. It's a splendid job."

Also an expensive one. Amory claims the Fund spent more than $500,000 on the burro-lift, much of it for helicopters. (The cost of slaughtering the animals had been estimated at $56,000.) At one point in the rescue, the Fund's bank balance was down to $700. Amory hopes to recoup some money by selling most of the 300 burros still at the Black Beauty Ranch (the rest have already been adopted) for $200 each. Angie Dickinson and Cindy Williams both have signed for animals. "Burros are sociable creatures," Amory swears. "They're interesting and they're affectionate. As pets, they have the best features of a dog and a cat." He estimates that one of the canyon beasties can be tamed within a week.

Amory's mission was not without its casualties: 10 elderly burros did not survive the experience, and one perished when it fell off a trail. But all in all, Amory is ecstatic. "I bet," he says, "if you asked young people if what we did is right, 98 percent would say, 'Yes.' All this hasn't been for the benefit of old fogies like me but the generations that follow. They'll be around to enjoy the animals we've managed to save."

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