Burros, or donkeys, are descended from the African wild ass. They are not indigenous to North America, but were imported by the Spanish. Burros proved to be the most useful beast of burden for the Grand Canyon area, where unsuccessful prospectors would sometimes abandon their animals, which led to a feral population of burros. That’s how the burro named Brightly found himself living in the Grand Canyon.
Brighty himself, who lived from about 1882 to 1922, was first seen in the Canyon near an abandoned miner’s tent, sitting vigil as if expecting the tent’s occupant to return. The burro appreciated occasional human companionship, especially when pancakes were involved. He spent summers on the cooler North Rim, hanging out with the game warden Jim Owens or the McKee family, who managed the first tourist facility on the North Rim, which opened in 1917. Brighty came and went as he pleased, toting water for the McKees’ young son, but scraping off any loads he deemed unworthy of his efforts. For instance, if a hunter caught Brighty and tried to make him pack his gear, Brighty would sneak away, rubbing the pack against trees until the lashing loosened and the load fell off.
It was along the North Rim that early Canyon tourists first met Brighty, probably between 1917 and 1922. Wills writes, “Vacationers struggling to interpret, or connect with, the immense scale of the Canyon (John Muir called it an ‘unearthly’ place), appreciated the presence of a familiar creature.”
But Brighty’s hybrid existence—not exactly wild, but not domesticated enough to be consistently useful—would count against him and his kind when the park service decided in the early 20th century that it should restore the Canyon to a pre-Columbian state of virgin splendor. Having arrived with the Spaniards, the burro was not native to Arizona.
The National Park Service’s plan for ridding the canyon of invasive species meant shooting the feral burros. Brightly had already passed on, but his story made him the face of the effort to save the burros. Animal lovers did not want them shot, and others wanted to maintain the feral burros for their part in US history. Others believed the canyon should be returned to its pre-settlement ecosystem. The controversy went on for decades. Read about Brightly and his legacy at Atlas Obscura.