Updated: September 23, 2009 at 12:00 am
One of Cripple Creek’s most beloved and well-known residents, Sweet Pea, has been shot.
Officials here are looking for answers, and many in this town of 1,012 on the west side of Pikes Peak are angry and worried about a segment of their population that has been living here since the gold rush days – the donkeys. The fears were eased somewhat Wednesday afternoon, when one donkey missing for two weeks was found safe.
“People up here like these donkeys. They’re part of our heritage. They’ve been in this town for over 100 years,” said Tom Cooper, president of the Two Mile High Club, a group formed in the 1940s with the sole mission of taking care of the animals. “They can be troublesome, they do get in peoples’ trash, so not everybody loves them, but that’s part of living up here.”
“To think that somebody would shoot one of them is just beyond me,” he said.
The donkeys, 11 of them, are thought to be descendents of donkeys set loose by miners when their claims went bust or electricity and mine carts rendered the animals obsolete for hauling gold and rock out of the mines. As Cripple Creek went from a mining town to a near ghost town to its rebirth as a casino and tourist destination, the donkeys have been a constant, roaming around town, living off grass, tourist handouts and, occasionally, the gardens and trash of residents.
They are the stars of the biggest event on the Cripple Creek calendar, Donkey Derby Days, when they race and parade down the city’s streets. City regulations limit the size of the herd to 15 animals.
“They are residents. They’re the official mascots of the town and have been for many, many years part of the venue of Cripple Creek,” said city administrator Bill McPherson. “There are some very, very concerned people, that somebody is trying to endanger the animals.”
A week ago, McPherson’s wife noticed Sweet Pea, a 10-year-old female, limping. Officials found an infected hip wound they determined came from a gun, probably a .22-caliber. The donkeys generally stay inside the city limits, so officials doubt it was a hunting accident.
Sweet Pea is now penned and in the care of a veterinarian and probably will survive, though she may need surgery, an expensive prospect for the Two Mile High Club.
But as they checked to make sure the other donkeys were okay, club members realized nobody had seen another donkey, Tarzan, for quite a while. By Wednesday, he had been missing for two weeks, and many feared whomever shot Sweet Pea may have shot or taken Tarzan too.
Said Cooper, “I’ve torn this town upside down myself, and so have some of the other members. I even got up in the hills around town and haven’t been able to find him.”
But late Wednesday afternoon, Tarzan was found unharmed about 3 miles south of town. Cooper said the donkey apparently wandered away in the company of some horses, and remained there for nearly two weeks.
“We will bring him back and corral him with the rest of the donkeys and see if we can’t get him to bond with the herd better so he doesn’t want to go off by himself,” Cooper said.
The Two Mile High Club is offering a $500 reward for information that leads to an arrest in Sweet Pea’s shooting. Anyone with information is asked to call Cripple Creek police at 689-9480 or e-mail the club at firstname.lastname@example.org. People interested in helping with Sweet Pea’s veterinary bills can contact the club at the same e-mail address.