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DONKEYS DRIVING NATIONAL PARK TO PUT UP FENCE

Aug. 29, 2001 – Roaming donkeys are a St. John problem that just doesn't seem to go away. While efforts have been made over the years to reduce their numbers, nothing has worked.
The problem is so bad that the V.I. National Park plans to put a barbed-wire fence around Cinnamon Bay Campground to keep them out. It will make its case for the fence at a Coastal Zone Management Committee hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Legislature Building.
"The donkeys are known to eat wallets, passports, airline tickets and food items," said Rafe Boulon, the park's chief of resources management. They've made serious holes in tents and sleeping bags, too.
To keep the beasts at bay, campers assembled Rube Goldberg-like barriers that included tin cans, trip wires and other alarms. Successive campers at the sites would improve upon the contraptions already in place, creating what Boulon said "was not a pleasant sight."
Many campers have said they will not return to Cinnamon Bay until the campground does something about the donkey problem, Boulon said. While he recalls only one incident in which a camper was attacked by one of the animals, many people outside the campground have been bitten and kicked.
Residents all over the island have put up fences to keep the donkeys out of their gardens. People with open houses have been known to find them munching food at their kitchen counters.
Catherineberg resident Katherine Demar and her husband, Dennis, were forced to fence in their property. Before they did, the donkeys made meals out of their landscaping. "They liked the palms and firecracker plants," she said. And she was awakened many a night by the sound of donkeys slurping up water from her pool.
Demar said a neighbor just lost the tops off three newly planted — and expensive — palm trees when donkeys visited.
Over the years, the park has made some efforts to reduce the donkey numbers. A 1991 experiment to inoculate females with a birth control vaccine was unsuccessful. The vaccine worked on the 25 donkeys in the study, but only for a year. "In order for it to be effective, you had to inoculate every female, and you had to do it every year," Boulon said.
This is no easy task. Donkeys aren't all that cooperative, posing danger for those trying to capture them. "It takes an incredible amount of human effort, all those kicks and bites," Boulon said, noting that one V.I. Fish and Wildlife Division researcher was knocked unconscious when a donkey kicked him in the head.
The park did get rid of some donkeys in the early 1990s, when it exported about 20 of them to St. Croix for use in donkey races and grazing. Since then, no one has volunteered to take any more.
But such efforts made only a minuscule drop in the population. Boulon said no one knows how many donkeys live on St. John. A study in the 1980s by David Nellis, then chief of wildlife at Fish and Wildlife, counted 212. In 1997, Nellis said the number had grown to around 600.
Boulon said he doesn't think St. John has more than 500 now. They roam all over the i island, which makes counting them difficult.
The donkeys cause environmental damage, too. As they munch their way around the island, they denude the hillsides, which causes soil erosion. But Boulon said the problems the donkey cause in this regard are insignificant compared to unpaved roads and the island's voracious roaming goats.
The donkeys do alter vegetation by spreading seeds to places where such plants do not normally grow. And they are selective eaters, which allows the plants they don't eat to take over areas. Curtis Bridgewater at the V.I. Agriculture Department office in Coral Bay said the department makes no effort to control the donkey population. He also said the department gets no complaints about them.
Boulon said the park might someday address the donkey issue again. Right now, it is working on an environmental assessment plan to rid the park of small animals — specifically rats, cats and mongooses. [See earlier Source story, "Rats, cats and mongooses have got to go".] When that problem is solved, park officials will tackle the pigs and goats, he said. The donkeys come last.
"If we have the nerve," Boulon said, laughing.

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