Spring is a season that has many pleasant associations: first blooms, longer days, warmer weather, and when donkeys roam free in the streets. Umm, what?

That last bit is a true story set in the Colorado town of Cripple Creek. Every spring, this small American town sets a herd of 15 donkeys free so they can graze freely, much to the joy of locals and tourists. The day the herd is released the event is attended by a large crowd with a celebratory atmosphere.

While the current event is a happy one, the origins of the freedom donkeys is built on sorrow. Back when Colorado was a gold rush state, donkeys were used extensively as beasts of burden, working tirelessly underground and never emerging. According to the legend, then-president and early environmentalist Theodore Roosevelt visited the town in 1901 and took pity on the little donkeys.

“He found it was inhumane that these donkeys were underground in the mines and never saw the light of day,” Curt Sorenson, a donkey caretaker in Cripple Creek told CBC’s As it Happens. “So he prevailed upon the local miners … to release the donkeys from the underground mines where they lived and died.”

Years later when advances in technology made the use of donkeys obsolete, the miners set them free. And in 1931, local business owners formed the Two Mile High Club (name based on the town’s elevation) to care for the donkeys. The Club says it costs approximately $2,000 per year per donkey for care, including feed, farrier, and vet, and it operates 100% on donations.

The donkeys roam free from mid-May through mid-October, and visitors are asked not to feed them anything but approved donkey treats ‒ apples, and carrots ‒ which can be purchased at local shops for a donation. The donkeys know that people often mean food, so they will eagerly approach visitors and there is no need to chase after them. From mid-October on the donkeys are kept in a winter pasture with shelter, cared for by volunteers.

The Two Mile High Club also hosts the annual Donkey Derby Days to honour the donkeys’ critical role in the city’s rich mining history. The event, this year being held from August 11-13, features live music, delicious food and exciting donkey races.

While there are no descendants of the original donkeys left in the town, animals are rescued and added to the herd to ensure the tradition continues. It’s a win-win for the donkeys and the kind residents of Cripple Creek.