Colorado shelters deal with repercussions of equine over breeding |

Colorado shelters deal with repercussions of equine over breeding

Nikki Work | Reporter/Designer
Floss Blackburn pulls her head back from Elvis, a curious horse, while at the Denkai Animal Sanctuary in Grover.
Joshua Polson/ | The Greeley Tribune

Contact Denkai Animal Sanctuary

For more information about the sanctuary, call (970) 895-2337 or email

The donkeys at Denkai Animal Sanctuary in Grover — Smarty, Trusty, Sneezy and Goofy — have more in common with Snow White’s seven dwarves than the ‘y’ at the end of their names. They’re small, reclusive and though their lives haven’t been fairy tales, for the first time they have someone to take care of them.

In May 2013, Floss Blackburn, Denkai’s founder, took in 21 donkeys who were rescued from forest service land in Otero County in southeast Colorado. The donkeys had been abandoned and were severely malnourished. Every female was pregnant and none of the males had been gelded.

“It was a sad situation. I mean, they were a mess,” Blackburn said.

Because of the poor health of the donkeys, many of the babies didn’t live. The mothers could barely produce milk. All the donkeys were riddled with lice, worms and were very wild.

In the time since, all but four of the donkeys have been adopted to homes willing to train and take proper care of them. The friendliest of the remaining four — Smarty — is in the process of being adopted. The other three will likely remain in Blackburn’s care for a while, she said, as they are not yet prepared for a life around people.

These donkeys are a tiny subset in the massive population of unwanted animals, ranging from horses to llamas and even other animals. Blackburn said though every animal that comes through the shelter pipeline has its own story, it’s impossible to ignore the undertone of overbreeding, especially in the equine industry.

“I would go at least 50 percent (of the animals come to us as a result of overbreeding), but really if these animals hadn’t been bred, they wouldn’t be here,” Blackburn said. “So you almost want to say 100 percent, in a way.”

The difficulties these animals face offer an opportunity for the large-animal industry to change. Since Denkai works with both large animals and pets, Blackburn said she has seen the things that work in the pet industry and how they can help curb overbreeding in large animals. For her, the overlap just makes sense.

Though rescues offer a second chance for animals, Blackburn said many of the horses that trot through her gates will be there for the rest of their lives because of injuries or neglect. Helena, a paint mare, lost an eye in what was reported as a pitchfork accident. Reiny, a buckskin palomino, has a shoulder injury. Nick and Elvis, quarter horse brothers, were bred and raised as pets with no training, which Blackburn said has been “a nightmare.”

“When they’re raised as pets, they’re dangerous,” Blackburn said. “They didn’t need to be bred to stand around for 10 years.”

A survey done by the Unwanted Horse Coalition in 2009 found that about 170,000 horses in the country were labeled as unwanted in 2007, for reasons ranging from affordability to injury. In addition, the survey reported that 63 percent of rescues are near or at capacity and have to turn away horses.

The horses that aren’t rescued often end up in sale barns, where people commonly called “kill buyers” purchase them to ship to Mexico or Canada for slaughter. In the U.S., there have been no equine slaughterhouses since 2007 when the federal government blocked funding for inspections. The funding was blocked again in 2014.

While Blackburn said she hasn’t seen much of a market for donkey meat, she wouldn’t be surprised if those animals were getting loaded onto trucks alongside the horses headed to slaughter.

What she is sure of, though, is that overbreeding in donkeys is a problem — “big time.”

“I think they either end up getting euthanized or starving to death somewhere,” she said.

Longhopes Donkey Shelter in Bennett also works to reverse the tide of overbreeding in donkeys. Kathy Dean, Longhopes’ founder and CEO, started the shelter to address what she saw as an unmet need in animal advocacy.

“For donkeys, like any other animal, including humans, if there are more donkeys produced than there are homes available, then you have this excess supply that’s at risk for abuse and death,” Dean said. “There are certainly not enough good homes for the donkeys that exist. There are not enough homes period, but there are certainly not enough good homes.”

And the large-animal industry could take some cues from the pet industry.

“The things that could be happening that would almost mimic that style would be regular castration clinics, dental clinics, worming and vaccine clinics, low-cost stuff like that, to reach horses owners or livestock owners that may not be terrible animal owners, but maybe they’ve fallen on hard times, maybe are on supplemental income, that could really benefit from a service like that,” she said.

More than anything, though, Blackburn said people need to understand what they are getting into when they take on large animals.

“I think people just think they can get into these animals and have a hobby farm,” she said. “They think they’re cute and then (don’t) take care of them.”

No matter their chances at adoption, Blackburn will continue her lifelong passion of caring for the animals no one else will.

The horses, like huge, friendly Elvis, gravitate to her. She has several dogs that follow loyally at the heels of her farm boots.

She even has a more than 700-pound pig that will roll over for a belly rub. And with much help from the friendly Smarty, even the anti-social donkeys are starting to come around.

“They’re super smart,” she said, grinning as she scanned the edge of her pasture where the four donkeys walked in sync. “I like ‘em.” ❖