Cripple Creek v.s. Oatman: An Ass For An Ass

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Here is something unique to see, and something tourists of all ages love: the sight of a semi-wild donkey herd, ambling through town and panhandling for snacks. Some folks say there is nothing like it, being jostled around by a group of smelly, furry four-leggeds as they nudge food out of your hand. In Colorado, Cripple Creek is well known as the place to watch, feed and pet upwards of a dozen donkeys, some of whom are said to be descendants of the same equines who once toiled in the hundreds of mines around the town. But Cripple Creek isn’t the only place to find donkeys; that claim also lies with Oatman, another historic mining community in Arizona.

Naturally these are two different places in their make-up as a whole. Oatman is located along old Route 66 in the desert hills near the Nevada and California borders. At its peak, the population only hovers between 43 and 135 souls. The hamlet is much smaller than Cripple Creek, whose population of over 1,000 people does not include people living in and around the Cripple Creek District including the City of Victor. In spite of a vast difference in altitudes—Oatman lies in the high desert at just over 2,000′ while Cripple Creek on the backside of Pikes Peak is close to 9,500’—both towns have amazing histories that continue to draw tourists from all over the world.

Despite their differences in population, altitude and accessibility, both Cripple Creek and Oatman offer quirky shops, museums and plenty of history. There are no hotels in Oatman, although the historic Oatman Hotel offers up libations and the honeymoon suite where actors Clark Gable Carol Lombard spent their wedding night in 1939. Three other saloons—Judy’s, the Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon and Shotgun Willie’s—offer lots of local color. Funky little cabins, gift and antique stores, and annual celebrations also are star attractions. In comparison, Cripple Creek has legalized gambling with a number of casinos, restaurants and hotels, as well as some unique gift shops and three museums.

It would seem that Oatman and Cripple Creek are vastly different, but the two cities do have several things in common. Both are located in remote places that were once teeming with life and money from local mines before fading to almost nothing before being revived as tourist towns. Both are highly accessible from well-traveled highways and are located near larger cities for a convenient getaway. Best of all, Oatman and Cripple Creek are also notable as the only two hamlets in the United States to have their own herd of wild donkeys.

The tale behind the donkeys (pardon the pun) in Oatman and Cripple Creek is similar: The sturdy little animals were brought to the mines more than a century ago as service animals, hauling ore and pulling wagons. Some were born and raised in the mines where they worked. When mining became unprofitable, the prospectors and their families moved on. Left behind, the donkeys wandered off or were befriended by the dwindling populations. In time, the former beasts of burden gained popularity among visitors and residents alike, and boosted tourism to a great degree.

Today, Oatman hosts a roaming herd of donkeys that includes descendants from the mining days, but also wild burros who wander into town on a regular basis. Because they have no natural predators, overpopulation in the last several years have resulted in occasional round ups by the Bureau of Land Management and even a contraception program beginning in 2018. In town, certain shops offer feed and carrots for tourists to hand out to the animals. There are also plenty of donkey-esque souvenirs for sale, including postcards, figurines, joke books, jewelry and other items featuring the furry figures. Donkeys adorn advertising, billboards, signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets and anything else used to tell the world about Oatman.

Like Oatman, Cripple Creek remains very proud of its donkey herd, which numbers somewhere around a dozen. The donkeys have been looked after by the not-for-profit Two Mile High Club since 1931, which sees to their care and shelters them during the harsh winter months. Visitors are hard pressed to find snacks for sale, but certain shops do carry them. The club also oversees the annual Donkey Derby Days celebration, a three-day event featuring music, vendors, parades and donkey races.

One more item of note: most everybody in Oatman and Cripple Creek loves their stinky, scruffy, ornery and totally loveable jackasses around town. Visitors coming to see them must follow these simple guidelines to assure a safe, fun and happy visit:

  • The donkeys and burros of Oatman and Cripple Creek are considered wildlife and are protected by Federal law. Harming or harassing them is illegal.
  • Donkeys are not toys. Respect them as you would any other wild animal and approach them gently.
  • Although they are approachable and love having their ears scratched, visitors should use common sense and refrain from trying to ride them.
  • Donkeys will bite, nip and kick, especially when snacks are involved. Be aware that they may surround and jostle you when they see you with snacks, so watch yourself and your children. The best way to feed them is told hold the food out with your hand flat to prevent getting your fingers bit by accident.
  • Candy, cigarettes, bread, crackers, popcorn and chips are just some of the items that are never appropriate to feed wildlife donkeys. Donkey-approved snacks are sold at some retailers, or you can bring your own horse biscuits or carrots (never, ever feed a carrot to a baby donkey; it will choke).
  • Feeding donkeys on the road not only holds up traffic, but it also makes them think it’s ok to stand in the road. Donkeys seldom run away; when you see them, park safely and walk to where they are.
  • Please watch for donkeys on the road and slow down, especially at night.

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