Rudy the sugar-smacking burro 

An otherwise gloomy holiday season will be a little brighter this year for needy Bitterroot families and individuals—thanks to former Ravalli County Commissioner Smut Warren. Warren held down that post from 1994 to 2000, but for over three times that long he’s served his community in a much more colorful fashion.

Every year, Warren dresses up in full Santa Claus kit—even outfitting his pet burro with harness and wooden antlers—and makes the rounds in the Bitterroot to deliver presents in the form of shoes, clothes and perhaps a Beanie Baby for the little ones, and help with gas and heating bills for their parents. Burro in tow, Warren’s Santa visits hospitals, group homes, nursing homes and other institutions around the county to spread cheer and small gifts. He’s able to do this partly through a grant from the charitable Greater Ravalli County Foundation, augmented with plenty of his own elbow grease and help from a couple of friends—including his trusty burro. Little Rudy is actually Warren’s second burro; the original Rudy died from smoke inhalation during the historic fires of 2000.

“He was getting old anyway,” says Warren, who adopted the late burro through the Nevada Bureau of Land Management almost 30 years ago, “but when the smoke came through here it caved his lungs in and he died. He was like one of my kids.”

But Little Rudy is proving a worthy heir, docile and tractable. When families visit Warren’s “Santa’s Workshop” at his ranch just outside Conner (Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. during the holiday season), the burro poses for pictures with the kids. The secret to getting a burro to put up with toddlers and antlers, says his handler, is a steady supply of lump sugar.

“You give him one and let him follow you,” Warren laughs. “He’ll follow you around and you give him another one. Pretty soon he just stays on you.”

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