The Forgotten Adopt-a-Burro Program at Disneyland

Long time readers of the blog will remember I was immensely fond Big Thunder Ranch, the petting zoo/restaurant/entertainment venue that was once next door to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and was demolished to make way for Galaxy’s Edge. Every once in awhile I wistfully look at Big Thunder Ranch items on Ebay and recently I came across a doozy! Paperwork that let Guests adopt their very own burro from the Ranch!

A small tan postcard features an image of the cartoon cowboy Pecos Bill, wearing a hat, shirt, kerchief, vest, pants, and chaps, with his arm around a burro. The rest of the postcard is a form for Guests to fill out, it reads "Adopting a Disneyland Burro I am interested in adopting a burro named ________ from the BIG THUNDER RANCH at Disneyland. Please send an application and more information to:" and the rest contains a form to fill out with information. The end reads "I understand I must be over 18 to have my parents make the application for me. I also understand that the burro adoption fee is $75 and that I must be able to provide it with a good home and car.e"

So how did this all start? Once the “wild west” settled down, horses and burros descended from those brought over from colonizers beginning in the 1500s, broke free or were abandoned and their population grew. Think of the town of Oatman, which is overrun with wild burros descended from ones abandoned by miners, but the entire west. Prior to 1971 these horses and burros roamed freely, however they were not often respected, finding themselves killed for grazing on ranch lands, taken to slaughter (typically for dog food), or, if they were lucky, taken in and tamed. This process of rounding up the animals was often done in cruel and inhuman ways with cars and planes. When Nevada resident Velma B. Johnston spied a crowded truck containing bleeding horses, she learned of this process, which included low flying planes chasing the animals until they grew tired, and then cornered with trucks. “Mustangers” as this groups came to be known, then lassoed the animals with ropes that had heavy objects attached (an article notes tires being used) causing the animals to run until they literally drop, and are then crated onto trucks. This traumatic process was photographed by Velma who then started a grassroots effort to change things, garnering her the nick name “Wild Horse Annie.” This lead Nevada to pass a bill making it illegal to round up free roaming horses and burros with cars and planes in 1959. Eventually this reached the federal level, with the Wild Horses and Burros Act of 1971 being passed, which prohibits the capture, injury, and disturbance of the animals. But this eventually lead to another problem.

With virtually no natural predators (aside from mountain lions) the horses and burros were left unchecked, leading to overpopulation and destruction of natural landscapes and ranch lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) notes that “vegetation on these lands must protect watersheds and prevent erosion, It also provides a limited supply of forage for livestock, and habitat and food for deer, antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife, in addition to wild horses and burros.” So what to do? Beginning in 1973 the BLM began humanly gathering wild horses and burros and placing them up for adoption in an effort to save areas from destruction and prevent overpopulation. In fact John Scull, a spokesperson for the California Desert District in 1986 went so far as to say “The animals are an ecological problem…There are several species of plants that are on our endangered species list that wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the burros.” Scull went on to say that burros are “marvelous little pets” and are “relatively easy to gentle down, and they’ll eat just about anything.”

In the mid-1980s Disneyland was developing a new area, Big Thunder Ranch, a combination petting zoo and restaurant, and looking for animals for their space. Disneyland saw the Adopt-A-Horse-or-Burro program as an easy way to gather animals, specifically burros, for Big Thunder Ranch while also helping the government. A Los Angeles Times article stated that as burrows were adopted, more would be brought in “to keep the population between six and 12.”  Guests interested in adopting a burro could fill out a postcard, like the one seen above, which would then be mailed to the BLM, and the interested party would receive a letter, more information, and an application.

Collection of a paper, including a letter from the Bureau of Land Management, a flyer announcing payment changes, and a brochure.

I love that both the letter to the “Interested Burrow Adopter” (see and read a close up here) and the Los Angeles Times article mentioned that a certificate of adoption will note that the animal came from Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch. Now if I can only get my hands on one of those! If you or anyone you know adopted a burro from Big Thunder Ranch, I would love to learn more about the process and at least see the certificate. Please comment below or message me via my contact form.

While the Adopt-A-Horse-or-Burro Program still exists today, it is unclear when the partnership with Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch ended. The initial incarnation of Big Thunder Ranch lasted from 1986 to 1996, when it was revamped into the Hunchback of Notre Dame: Festival of Fools, which lasted until 1998. From then until April 2004, the area sat unused, until it was brought back to life with a Home on the Range theme. Unfortunately, Home on the Range was not the box office smash Disney hoped it would be, and eventually the theming faded, and the area became a permanent petting zoo and occasional holiday celebration area, in addition to the delightful all-you-can-enjoy barbecue restaurant. I remember the fun loving goats, and have fond memories of Poncho, one of the burros who once resided at Big Thunder Ranch. The area was also home to one of my favorite hidden Mickeys, which was made up of creatively placed horseshoes. These snaps below are from the final day at the ranch, which you can see more of here.

Myself, wearing a fringe leather jacket leaning over a fence looking at a burro.

A small grey burro looks up at the camera.

Sadly, the final animals and their song bird companions at the barbecue rode into the sunset in 2016 as the area was closed to make way for Galaxy’s Edge. For my past experiences at the Ranch check out these posts. You can also see pictures of Big Thunder Ranch on Yesterland and Daveland. Interested in your very own burro? Learn more on the BLM’s website.

August 2020 UPDATE: Sadly I missed out on this ebay listing, (but I saved the picture) it is a Disneyland brochure that mentions the opening of Big Thunder Ranch and the burro adoptions!

Brochure that features images of the droid C3PO, the Star Tours attraction, Mickey Mouse in a farmer outfit with a sheep and a child. Text reads "The Force Is with Us Now that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and the Rebel forces have destroyed the Empire and made the universe safe to live in once again, interstellar travel agencies have begun offering tours of a galaxy far, far away. One such agency, Star Tours, has opened a space port at Disneyland and is currently scheduling voyages to the moon of Endor, home of the lovable Ewoks. A George Lucas adventure, Star Tours is a thrilling attraction featuring C-3Po and R2-D2 of 'Star Wars' fame, as well as a highly trained by inexperienced star speeder pilot named Rx24...Rex, for short. With Rex as your pilot, though, you better pray The Force is with you. After all, you never know where you may end up. Meanwhile Back at the Ranch Returning to Planet Earth after your universe-hopping adventures in Tomorrowland, you may want to relax by checking out another new attraction at Disneyland, Big Thunder Ranch. An Old West homestead along the Big Thunder Trail in Frontierland, Big Thunder Ranch recreates frontier life the way it was in 1800s America. The wide open spaces of Big Thunder Ranch include an authentic reproduction of a log cabin, a petting farm featuring goats and sheep, a pasture for Disneyland's award-winning horses to graze in, a barbecue restaurant boasting such favorites as chicken and ribs, and s table that houses the newest stars in the Magic Kingdom, a passel of lovable burros that are available for adoption."

ANIMALS: Wild Horse AnnieTime, 27 July 1959.
Ito, Sheldon. “Newest Attraction at Magic Kingdom: Burro Adoptions.” Los Angeles Times, 16 May 1986.
Program History.” Bureau of Land Management.

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