A pet donkey ran away. Five years later, he’s living with a wild elk herd.

An elk herd roams the sprawling oak savannas of Northern California with a member who isn’t an elk at all. His name is Diesel, and he is a donkey.

The story about how an unassuming pack animal became something approaching a hoofed Tarzan started hundreds of miles away, involved a decades-old federal program and required the heartbreak of two people who had welcomed Diesel into their family.

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But some donkeys aren’t meant to be caged.

“He’s earned his freedom,” said Terrie Drewry, Diesel’s former owner.

Diesel’s story has made headlines for years. It first did so in 2019 when he ran away from Terrie and her husband, Dave, who after months of searching for their new pet, gave him up for dead. Five years later, video of Diesel roving the California wilderness as a fully enmeshed member of an elk herd has gone viral, having been viewed about 3.2 million times in the three months since it posted, KOVR reported this month. The footage buoyed the Drewrys’ hopes that they might see him again. The video, taken by a hunter, shows Diesel turning, trotting and running with his more graceful-looking herd mates.

“It was almost like synchronized swimming,” Terrie said.

The Drewrys got Diesel in November 2018 through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro program. An avid backpacker, Dave was in his mid-50s and looking for a way to carry his gear - tents, cots, camping stoves, pots and pans - on days-long treks through the wilderness. The Drewrys spent months training Diesel, who weighed about 500 pounds and could haul a fifth of that. They drove more than 500 miles to Palm Desert to get the 3-year-old gray-brown donkey with a white belly who already had the name Diesel because “he’s a powerhouse.”

He was a bit standoffish at first, but once the Drewrys, who live on a 4-acre “hobby farm” near Auburn, Calif., gained his trust, Diesel followed them everywhere, always at their hip asking for a hug or a treat, Terrie said. In the five months they had him, the Drewrys took him on increasingly long hikes with more and more weight until he could go out three to four times a week carrying gear.

On April 20, 2019, Dave was taking Diesel on his final training pack trip. Around noon something spooked him, causing him to take off. With Dave holding his lead, Diesel dragged him behind for about 300 feet until Dave was forced to let go. Banged up, Dave nevertheless tracked Diesel for miles to try to recapture him but could never get close enough.

He finally gave up and called his wife with bad news, a moment that Terrie said will be “etched in my memory forever.”

Terrie posted to a Facebook group dedicated to finding missing pets in the area, and starting at dawn the next morning, the Drewrys and about eight others formed a search party that scoured the wilderness for about 12 hours. There was no sign of Diesel.

“It was like he had just disappeared - some alien machine had picked him up and moved him off,” she said.

But the Drewrys didn’t give up. They searched again the next weekend. They posted pleas for help on social media. Local TV stations ran stories about their plight. A drone pilot went out two to three times a week for a month in a vain effort to find Diesel.

“I was defeated,” she said. “I was beside myself … lots of tears.”

After two to three months of failed searches, Terrie resigned herself to never getting Diesel back. She assumed he was dead, killed by a predator, vehicle or injury.

Months turned into years.

Then, around 2021, the Drewrys got a call from a wildlife biologist who said he’d seen a donkey running with an elk herd. That oddity led him to the internet, where he learned about what happened to Diesel and the Drewrys in 2019. He contacted them with the coordinates of his possible sighting, but when the Drewrys went to investigate, they found nothing.

Last September, they got another tip. Someone sent a grainy video of a donkey with an elk herd, and while a subsequent ride turned up hoofprints, there was no sign of elk or Diesel.

Then, about three months ago, the Drewrys started getting calls about a video circulating on Instagram showing a donkey running with an elk herd. They watched it, and all of the near misses and maybes melted away - it was Diesel.

“We knew for sure,” Terrie said.

Max Fennell, a businessman and professional triathlete, was hunting just before 9 a.m. March 30 during the opening weekend of turkey season when he crested a ridge. He noticed a herd of about 15 elk about 60 feet away. Looking closer, his eyes homed in on a donkey amid the herd.

“I’m in complete shock,” he said, recalling his reaction.

Amy McLean, an assistant professor of equine science at the University of California at Davis, said she wasn’t at all surprised about a donkey joining an elk herd when friends started sending her posts about Diesel this month. Donkeys are intelligent, so much so that they’re one of the few animals that can survive in Death Valley, where temperatures often top 120 degrees in the summer, she said. Unlike horses, which mindlessly graze on whatever’s in front of them, donkeys deliberately seek out roughage that is more nutritious. McLean said that Diesel could have reasoned that he had a greater chance of surviving by joining a group of fellow large-hoofed herbivores, even if they aren’t “exactly like me.”

“They’re amazing animals,” McLean said.

It was an odd enough sight for Fennel, an experienced hunter who’s familiar with the area, to whip out his phone and record video. A day later, he posted a 41-second compilation to Instagram, news of which would eventually make it back to the Drewrys and confirm that the pet they had long given up for dead was in fact alive.

And that’s enough for Terrie. She said she would love to have Diesel back as a pet because “he was awesome” but getting him now would be like catching a wild animal. Without using invasive methods, no one will be able to get close enough to Diesel before he and his herd run off, she said.

Plus, she added, he seems to have found his people, so to speak. When she watches Fennel’s video, she sees how Diesel moves in unison with the herd. In another video, Diesel comes out from the main herd to two elk who react to his shepherding by getting up and returning to the fold.

Terrie is just happy Diesel has found family and purpose, even if it wasn’t with her.

“He was born wild, captured, got away and now he’s wild again,” she said, “and that’s where he deserves to be.”

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