Friday, March 17, 2023

Insight: The Atomic Burro

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

In our lives we all meet colorful characters and unforgettable things we wish to remember always. This is one of those for me and the passing of time cannot diminish my memory of a creature who was not only a hero, but also part of the family.

Ed Pierce is shown with Mabel, the 'Atomic Burro,' in 1984.
She was a genetic test animal for The Manhattan Project
during World War II which developed the first atomic bomb.
Mabel was a baby burro less than a year old when she was rescued in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1930. Her mother had been killed in an avalanche and she was found alone, hungry, and wandering on a mountain trail.

Government officials nurtured her back to health and eventually she was used by the U.S. Army at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado for soldier training. In 1943, Mabel was shipped south by the Army to New Mexico for new duties as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project, a program developing the atomic bomb.

She spent time at project headquarters in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and then in late 1944, she was transferred to White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico to be used as a genetic test research animal. On July 16, 1945, Mabel was placed in the desert along with other animals and exposed to nuclear fallout at a distance as a scientific experiment during the first testing of the atomic bomb.

Over the next 12 years, the burro was bred several times and government scientists checked Mabel and her offspring for genetic mutations resulting from her exposure to radiation. Her babies showed little to no mutations, but scientists noticed that Mabel’s right front hoof grew abnormally fast from her radiation exposure.

Eventually, Mabel was transferred in 1956 to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico and four years later scientists there recommended she be destroyed as her breeding days had passed and she was no longer useful to them.

At that point, a Sandia National Laboratories employee intervened. He asked for and was granted permission to take her to his farm near Los Lunas, New Mexico to live out her final days. She quickly became a neighborhood fixture there, becoming friendly with people living nearby and popular for taking small children for rides around the farm.

In 1973, Mabel was 43 when I met her, having married the daughter of the employee who took her home. Living on the farm while going to college, I helped feed and care for the burro and noticed that she had a unique way with people.

She’d keep an eye out for neighbors walking near her pasture and when she saw them near the fence, Mabel would trot over and bray to greet them. Inevitably, they would produce a carrot or an apple and she’d let them scratch her ears and pat her neck affectionately.

In the morning as the sun came up, Mabel could be heard bellowing for breakfast and would keep it up until I gave her some alfalfa, a handful of grain and fresh water. We built her a new barn for shelter during the winter and it included stalls for her roommates, some Southdown sheep and later two Nubian goats.

As the years rolled by, Mabel’s popularity increased when she was the subject of a newspaper article and soon kids and families from up to 20 miles away were calling and asking if they could stop by, visit her or have their photograph taken with her.

She relished all the attention and treated everybody equally. If they approached her slowly and had a handful of treats or a carrot, Mabel was their new best friend. But if it was the farrier looking to trim her hoof once again, she’d trot to the far side of the pasture and pretend not to hear us when we called out to her.

The average lifespan of a burro is about 25 to 40 years, so I can remember talking to our veterinarian in 1980 about Mabel turning 50 and how unusual that was. As she approached her 55th birthday in 1985, I wrote an article about her life and quirky personality that appeared in Reader’s Digest.

Following publication of that article, the Guinness Book of World Records reached out to us, wanting to list her as among the oldest living burros in the world. A local television station crew visited the farm and filmed a feature segment about her for the evening news one weekend.

We all thought that Mabel would outlive all of us, but time and arthritis eventually caught up to her. Weighing around 500 pounds, she loved to lay in the sun during warm summer days, but found it increasingly difficult to stand afterward because of severe arthritis in her legs.

By 1989, at the age of 59, the time had come to let her go. The vet came to our home that day and there was plenty of tears shed, but she was in a great deal of pain from the arthritis and had stopped eating.

This gentle animal should be remembered for her service to humanity and ability to bring smiles to the faces of small children. Mabel was certainly one of a kind and hard for me not to forget.<

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