I love feeding animals.
I fed giraffes at the Toledo, Ohio, zoo a few months ago. Paid $5 for fronds of iceberg lettuce. Standing up on a tall platform, I was approached by stupendous African beasts whose long round purple tongues wrapped around lettuce pieces expertly. I remember their slow chewing, how it gave me pleasure to feed them.
“Excuse me sir, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m a Vietnam Veteran a little down on his luck. If you could spare an apple or a carrot …”
I fed wild burros in Custer State Park last week, the peak experience of a five-day stay in the Black Hills. These friendly brutes walk up to your car if you pull onto the shoulder of Wildlife Loop Road, and hustle you for snacks. Their regular diet is prairie and low-mountain grass. Exploited a century ago as pack carriers, they were then left to fend for themselves. It’s easy to understand the park’s one blind spot in the directive not to feed the animals.
You also see buffalo, white-tail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and other wildlife on this ride, where you’re held to 25 mph. You stay in your car (another directive). It’s only burros people get out of their cars to feed.
First time we went, Barb and I set out with two apples and a plastic bag of peeled baby carrots. At first, we thought we were going to strike out. We’d done everything right. You hit Wildlife Loop Road after sunrise or before sunset, when it’s cool and the critturs rove about feeding. It takes an hour or two to do the road. We slowed down a few times, for white-tail deer, but that was it.
The burros finally appeared, about the eighth or tenth mile. They’re the friendliest, most grateful animals. My advice is to halve or quarter your apple first. Equines — horses or mules or donkeys or burros — cannot eat a whole apple at once. One burly hustler stuck his head inside my car window. I extended a whole apple. It bit it in half. I caught the free half and, after it had chewed and swallowed and opened its rubbery lips for more, fed it the rest. It slobbered as it ate, drooling foamy white stuff onto my jeans and T-shirt. Barb and I shared a yeeeccch! moment but were having too much fun to care.
It gets a little slobbery, but for a burro this surely passes as impeccable manners.
“Bob! Don’t give him the whole bag. Show a little discipline,” my wife said to me once when I was out of the car feeding a burro on the shoulder.
She was right. I closed the carrot bag and began walking back to my car. I began to giggle hysterically as my insistent customer nudged my shoulder and followed me! I shook him with one last carrot feed before bolting into my battered but reliable Subaru Forester.
We redid Wildlife Loop Road the last night before we had to check out of our lodge. I got rid of the rest of the carrots as well as apples Barb had cut into pieces. I’d heard the burro population was eight, but on this second visit we saw about 15: not only adults, which were white, but smaller, apparently younger ones, which for some reason were brownish grey. It felt good to see them surviving, even thriving. It must be a hard winter, but the fall, spring, and summer forage sustains them. Even spoiled by the likes of me.
And what can you say about buffalo? You must see these shaggy, formidable beasts up close, hear them snorting and moving about, to get a sense of their majesty. The sheer breadth of shoulder, chest, and huge head as they graze by the score along the roadside! They even cross the road to get across, oblivious to crawling cars and trucks and SUVs. In fact, a lot of the vehicles weren’t crawling but had stopped, tourists inside snapping pictures like mad.
The staged Buffalo Roundup was a dud compared to Wildlife Loop Road.
For the roundup, an annual event, attended by South Dakota’s governor amidst some hoopla, you get up in the dark and pack folding chairs and munchies and coffee thermoses into your ride, having bundled yourself up against a long wait in morning cold, and drive to line up in the dark to be let into the park. This occurs at sunrise, about 6 a.m. You get your stuff out of the car and traipse down to where the staging area is. You can position yourself up close to the fence, down a long hill, or somewhere further up the hill to see the roundup over people’s heads. Barb wanted our noses up against the fence so we went there, which only made for a longer hike up a high hill for the portable loos to relieve myself after a weird, sleepless night and too much coffee to compensate.
You have to see these shaggy beasts to appreciate their legacy. White man has a lot of karma to work down for bringing them to near extinction.
We expected a thundering stampede, barely managed by a bunch of whooping cowboys: a storming herd of beasts, its outer edge a mere 20 feet from the chain link fence. Instead – after a four-hour wait! – the cowboys, some driving trucks, brought the big herd (all the park’s bison having been rounded up) over a distant rise toward us, then drove them toward the big pens off to our right. The herd never got closer to us than the length of a football field away. As the patriotic applause died down, Barb and I, and her family members from Cleveland, glanced at one another, shaking our heads. We’d expected something more rip-snorting, an event rather more harrowing than this! This was weak tea, and over in a few minutes!
I’m glad, after that letdown, we did Wildlife Loop Road that second time.
I was hit on by an old burro first, then I got out of my SUV and walked to the shoulder where a fuller herd was assembled than we’d seen last time. The battered old wheezer couldn’t get all the goods. I wanted to share them with a younger adult. But as it turned out they both competed for my last carrots, the second, younger one necking down to sneak off the grass a final bit that had dropped to the feet of the old one.
I was out. And the trip to South Dakota finally felt complete.
Neither seeing Mr. Rushmore’s dramatic night lighting ceremony with all its attendant lump-in-the-throat speechifying, nor sitting through the vaunted Buffalo Roundup, had produced this feeling of fullness.
“Now I feel the vacation is complete,” I said to Barb as I pulled the SUV onto Wildlife Loop Road to head back to our lodge. Sun dropping to piney hilltops, I added, “I don’t know why feeding animals tickles me so.”
“If something’s fun for you,” she said, “why question it?”