The story of Brighty and a history of America’s wild burros


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BRIGHTY of the Grand Canyon, by Marguerite Henry, describes the embellished adventures of Bright Angel, a real-life, half-wild burro that roamed the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from about 1892 until 1922.

The National Park Service’s North Rim Guide for the 2008 tourist season features a picture of the real Bright Angel (nicknamed “Brighty”).

According to the pamphlet, Brighty carried water from a canyon spring to a tourist accommodation on the North Rim.

In her book Henry describes Brighty’s adventures, including his meeting with President Teddy Roosevelt on the day a newly built bridge across the Colorado River was dedicated.

The real-life story of Brighty ended more tragically than the fictionalized version.

The burro was eaten in the winter of 1922 by two travelers stranded at the Grand Canyon during a winter storm.

How burros ended up in the Grand Canyon is a torturous tale.

The fossil record of the horse family (Equidae), which includes the burro (E. asinus), dates back more than 5 million years. Ancestors of the modern horse originated in North America and dispersed across South America, Eurasia and Africa.

The burro is a direct descendant of animals that appeared in northern Africa about 2 million years ago, probably migrating from North America across the Bering Strait. Wild burros, also known as asses or donkeys, had been domesticated in Africa by 4000 B.C.

At least one scholar, Debra K. Bennett, suggests that the ass, or a close ancestor, might have lived in North America between 1.8 and 4.7 million years ago. In other words, Brighty’s ancestors might have wandered North America long before they migrated to Africa.

At some point, burros disappeared from North America, but only for a while. Spanish explorers, missionaries and settlers imported burros to the Americas in the 1500s.

The first written documentation of asses in the Americas was recorded in 1526, according to a 2006 article in the journal Mammalian Species. Columbus probably brought burros to the New World as early as 1494. In 1599 donkeys were present near what is now El Paso, Texas.

Well adapted to the deserts of Africa and able to survive on minimal forage and water, burros readily adjusted (or readjusted) to the geography and climate of the American West. During the mining boom of the late 1880s, prospectors used burros as pack animals in Southwest locales, including the Grand Canyon.

With the decline of small mining operations and the development of an extensive railroad system, burros were abandoned all over the Southwest. These resilient animals formed small herds and gained a hoofhold in regions of Arizona, California and Nevada, where their descendants still survive.

Burros also escaped within the borders of Grand Canyon National Park, founding herds that were eventually removed or exterminated.

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FEATURED IMAGE: Some of Oatman’s burros survive without handouts, living wild out in the desert. This burro stopped by the side of the road to drink rainwater from a puddle near Oatman, Ariz. on January 27, 2013. (Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg used with permission; not to be reproduced).

Updated regarding reuse and permissions October 28, 2o16. Thank you.

3 thoughts on “The story of Brighty and a history of America’s wild burros”

  1. Sheesh , yet another example of how human beings exploit other animals. We always think we are entitled to use them, abuse them, and then they should be grateful for the food and water we give them (when we get around to it, or if its not too inconvenient to us). We are great at kidding ourselves into thinking they would rather be manipulated by us than being left alone with their own kind in their own natural habitats.


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