Burros seek, sow wild oats in Oatman


Oatman, AZ has a burro problem. It started not long after the town’s gold mining operations were shut down by the U.S. government in the 1940s as part of the war effort, since metals other than gold were needed. Gold mining operations vacated the neighboring hillsides and left their hard-working burros behind. The furry, hoofed hill climbers began to multiply and migrated into town in search of food.

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Today, the burros of Oatman compete with western-style gunfight actors for celebrity status in town. Frankly, the town is better known for the burros than gunfighters. Storekeepers love the burros because they draw business-boosting tourists. Yet, they loathe the adorable pack animals because they loiter like drunkards. They’re are unpredictable, letting loose with obnoxious heehaws without concern for human ears. And they poke their heads into gift shops looking for grub.

Adorable young donkey posing for photos in Oatman, AZ
Adorable young donkey posing for photos in Oatman, AZ

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Many shop owners sell burro chow to visitors, who take selfies with the burros as they feed them. “Burro” is Spanish for “donkey,” so they are basically the same thing.  A mule, on the other hand, results when a male burro (called a jack) mates with a female horse. Though normally gentle, the burros are in fact wild and signs posted throughout Oatman advise visitors to exercise caution around them. They are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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Oatman quick facts:

  • Elevation: 2,710 feet (830 meters)
  • Population: 128, down from 3,500 at its peak
  • Gold first discovered in 1863
  • $10 million gold claim found in 1915

Although burros love to eat oats, the town’s name has nothing to do with food. Oatman is named after Olive Oatman, a young Illinois girl who was taken captive and forced into slavery by Indians during her pioneer family’s journey westward in 1851. She was later traded to Mohave Indians, who adopted her as a daughter, and was released in 1856 at Fort Yuma, Arizona.

Ironic isn’t it? That the Arizona town most popular with burros is “Oat”man. Hmmm.

See the Oatman burros in action with a video stroll down the main drag in this 3-minute video:

Given that Oatman’s original industry (mining) died over half a century ago, it should have become another ghost town. Yet it appears to thrive today, thanks in part to its location on historic Route 66 in the foothills of Arizona’s Black Mountains. Oatman is less than an hour from the popular towns of Laughlin, NV and Bullhead City, AZ that sit opposite each other on the Colorado River. It’s a great stop for bikers before they head over the winding mountain road to Cool Springs and Kingman.

These days, the burros are the only living connection to the town’s once rich gold mining history. People coming to see the burros may be the town’s greatest hope for survival. The town may have a burro problem, but it’s a good problem to have.

Ready to check out Oatman? Here’s the way:

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