As It Happens

Donkeys were the lifeblood of this Colorado town. Now every summer, they roam free

Every spring, the small Colorado tourist town of Cripple Creek releases its herd of 15 donkeys to much fanfare, so they can roam the town until autumn, all the while warming hearts and destroying gardens.

'In Cripple Creek, that's where the asses run wild and the donkeys are well cared for,' says donkey caretaker

Two donkeys in front of a house.
Ever spring and summer, the donkeys of Cripple Creek, Colo., run free. (David K.Johnson/The Two Mile High Club)

The donkeys are running free once again in Cripple Creek.

Every spring, the small Colorado tourist town releases its herd of 15 donkeys to much fanfare, so they can roam free until autumn, all the while warming hearts and destroying gardens.

This year, Cripple Creek resident and longtime donkey caretaker Curt Sorenson was on the phone with CBC Radio's As It Happens as the big moment unfolded. 

"Here comes Deckers and Tiffany and Matilda and Flash and Georgiana. Oh, my gosh!" Sorensen told guest host Helen Mann as the critters emerged from their pen. "Look at 'em! They're having a great time."

WATCH | Releasing the donkeys on the radio:

Colorado town releases its donkeys

4 months ago
Duration 0:16
Every spring, the town of Cripple Creek, Colo., sets loose its herd of donkeys to roam free around town until autumn rolls around. This year, resident Curt Sorenson — one of the volunteers who takes care of the cutters — was talking to CBC Radio's As It Happens during the big moment.

The tradition of releasing the donkeys in Cripple Creek goes back 92 years — though the origin story dates back more than a century.

Once upon a time, during the gold rush, the community was a booming mining town, and the donkeys were labourers.

Back then, the donkeys didn't have it as good as they do today. The mines were all underground, and the working animals spent their days lugging loads of ore and other supplies through the mining tunnels.

The story goes that in 1901, then-U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt visited the town, and felt a wave of pity for the creatures. 

"He found it was inhumane that these donkeys were underground in the mines and never saw the light of day," Sorenson said. "So he prevailed upon the local miners … to release the donkeys from the underground mines where they lived and died."

'Everybody loves Deckers'

Over the years, as mining technology developed and the donkeys were no longer needed, the miners set the creatures free. 

Then, in 1931, local business owners joined forces and decided to form an organization to look after the donkeys that had once looked after them.

The Two Mile High Club — so named because of Cripple Creek's high elevation — was born. 

Two donkeys on a rural road, a small town visible behind them.
The donkeys wander Cripple Creek, their playground until autumn rolls around. (Annie Valades/Two Mile High Club)

Today, the descendants of the original herd are all gone, volunteer Annie Valades told CBC in an email. 

"So, through the years, we have rescued donkeys in their honour to continue this historic tradition," she said. 

Sorenson knows them all by name and greets them like Santa Clause calling his reindeer on Christmas Eve. But his favourite, he says, is Deckers — who was born and raised in Cripple Creek. 

"I've got a picture of Deckers with an American flag in his mouth that he picked up out of my front yard on a 4th of July party. And I thought: You have to love Deckers. Everybody loves Deckers," he said. 

Two pictures side by side. On the left, two gray and white donkeys stand near a house, peering at the camera. On the right, a similarly coloured donkey holds and American flag in its mouth.
Volunteer Curt Sorenson's favourite donkey is Deckers, right, who was born to a rescue donkey in town. (Annie Valades/Two Mile High Club)

Sorenson has long been a member of the Two Mile High Club, and was even the group's president for a while. He helps take care of the donkeys all fall and winter.

When they're not roaming free, they're kept warm in a pen, which Sorenson says they're more than happy to return to when the weather starts cooling down in October.

But every spring, the community gathers round to watch a Roosevelt impersonator let them loose once again. Sorensen says people come from all over to partake in the festivities.

"We've got radio and TV folks here. All kinds of people have gathered around to see the donkeys free for the summer," Sorenson said. "They've been looking forward to this moment all winter long. They want to be free."

It takes a village

The donkey-freeing event serves as a fundraiser for the animals' care, as is the annual Donkey Derby Days in August.

"It's a three-day celebration of our donkeys and the rich mining history of our region; donkey races, an old fashioned parade, food trucks and vendors, beer garden and concerts all weekend," Valades said.

Caring for the donkeys is not cheap. Sorenson estimates it costs $2,000 US a year per donkey to keep them fed and housed, and pay their vet bills.

Two pictures. On the left, three donkeys standing in the grass. On the right, a donkey pokes its head in the open door of a house.
Sorenson says the people of Cripple Creek are warm and friendly to the donkeys. 'They're like big pets,' he said. (Annie Valades/Two Mile High Club)

But pretty much everyone chips in.

"The whole town loves them, and people would probably go without food here to ensure these donkeys have hay," volunteer Valades said. 

During the spring and summer, all of Cripple Creek is the donkeys' playground. They wander the streets and hang out in people's yards. Residents feed them carrots and "approved donkey treats," and keep tubs of fresh water out for them.

"We say in Cripple Creek, that's where the asses run wild and the donkeys are well cared for," Sorenson said.

A man dressed in a top top with a fake moustache stands at a podium on the back of a truck, with rolling hills in the background. A middle-aged man and woman stand nearby smiling.
A man dressed like former U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt, left, presides over the annual releasing of the donkeys in Cripple Creek. Sorenson, right, was on hand for 2023's event, alongside his wife Peggy, centre (Annie Valades/Two Mile High Club)

Sorensen says the whole thing is a way of giving back to the animals who were once the lifeblood of the town's economy. And in many ways, they still are. 

In the 1920s, during the Great Depression, the town went from boom to bust.

While there's still a gold mine in town, a local casino and the accompanying tourism is a major part of the economy today — and the donkeys are part of that.

"They're our town ambassadors," Sorenson said. "The donkeys are the history of Cripple Creek in a nutshell.

And while they do wreak some havoc — especially on people's flower beds — Sorenson says most everybody loves them as much as he does.

"You'll get a couple of old reprobates that might have a problem, but no, for the most part, I live in Cripple Creek, the donkeys come nip my wife's flowers all the time. We're not troubled by that," he said.

"These guys give you so much happiness. Everybody loves donkeys. They're like big dogs. They're just wonderful, and they do so much for the community."

Interview with Curt Sorenson produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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