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As the Executive Director of a donkey rescue as well as a professional donkey wrangler, I sometimes forget that most people don’t know what I know. Doctors understand sickness, dentists understand teeth, lawyers understand law and, well, I understand donkeys. I spend a great deal of time with these animals and I guess you could say that I feel what they feel; I know their thoughts and I understand their actions. But most importantly, I view them as remarkable creatures.
Will Rogers once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” While few of us in today’s fast paced, keepin’ up with Jones’, super sized, internet ready world share Mr. Roger’s sentiments about our fellow citizens, I can say without a second thought that I truly have never met a donkey that I didn’t like. Although I have, on occasion, met a dog, cat, horse or mule that I had little or no use for, no donkey has ever crossed my path that I couldn’t find a great deal of good in.
Most people view donkeys as hardheaded and stubborn—a stupid animal that was used by lonely old prospectors to carry equipment and possessing little or no use in today’s world. After all, where do they fit in? They’re not listed on the endangered species list. Chances are, you’ll never see one in a pet store between the kittens and puppies. . The equine industry ignores them and the general public doesn’t understand them. Since they are typically not included as a farm animal and as they are considered feral in the wild, the American Donkey has still not earned his niche in society.
The American Standard Donkey is a mixture of several breeds brought into the United States from countries like France, Spain, Greece and Italy to name a few. They are a direct descendant of the Great African Wild Ass and are cousin to the Zebra. The American Standard Donkey is generally between 36” and 54” tall at the shoulders. They all bear a cross on their back that runs down their spine and crosses their shoulders onto their legs, and they range in many colors from the common gray to brown, black and even pink.
The African Wild Ass is one of the most endangered animals on the planet and is expected to become extinct very soon due to poverty and political strife in their native habitat. The thousands of wild donkeys in the American South-West are viewed as feral and are rounded up and placed for adoption by the Bureau of Land Management. Although federally protected as a part of our Western Heritage, the numbers allowed to remain in the wild by the BLM are far less than what these animals can produce. Thousands of wild donkeys are kept in pens awaiting an adoption that will most likely never come.
The wild donkeys of America tell as accurate account of our history as any book on the matter. They were brought here as low-level workers. By carrying equipment and pulling carts these sure-footed animals made themselves invaluable to explorers and miners. As times changed and money grew scarce, many donkeys were released into the wild to fend for themselves. The Deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and California were a perfect home for these rugged animals who managed to keep their breed strong and healthy for nearly a century. Now, human intervention is taking its toll.
Although dams, roads, fences, pollution and even power plants are acceptable “inconveniences” on nature, donkeys are viewed as an immediate threat to the environment. As a water-drinking mammal, the competition with domestic cattle has resulted in their numbers being dramatically reduced. And although they are no longer shot by the National Park Service, they are still driven from their lands by all means necessary.
As a donkey wrangler, you learn to read a donkey’s eyes. He can tell you his entire life story with just one glance. A donkey can’t read, can’t use a computer or a telephone, doesn’t have a mortgage to pay and can’t even tell you what is on TV. He has time. With a lifespan of 40+ years, he is in no hurry to give up his secrets. He wants to tell you, but only if you have the patience to listen. And he tells you with his eyes. Aggression, fear, love and hate are all reflected in those large brown orbs.
I have learned to step off the world when I am with them, I figure that it will keep spinning awhile without me. My donkeys need someone who can give them undivided attention. Like any sensitive creature, a donkey wants you to know what he has been through. He needs to tell you that he was never given a kind word or touch, that he was left all alone with no one to talk to. But he will only tell you on his terms, in his way, and only if you are willing to listen.
I have spent weeks sitting in the corner of a pen waiting for the story to unravel. One donkey had so much fear that if I approached him, he would shake so violently that he would literally fall over. There I’d sit, paying for the sins of others, waiting for the donkey to become comfortable with me in his pen. Slowly, after several days, advancing to a hand fed carrot, “they used to beat me”. A few weeks later a soft touch on the forehead, “every time anybody came near me it hurt”. Much later a brush stroke on the back, “they threw rocks at me when I brayed”. I have heard every one of these stories from the donkeys in my care.
Donkeys are by far the most mistreated domestic farm animals in America. Because of their limited numbers, the abuse is less noticeable than if it was inflicted on horses. A donkey requires vaccinations, hoof care, worming and a select diet. Most receive none of these items but rather are left to fend and forage for themselves on a backfield or a cramped pen. The abuse and neglect inflicted on these animals ranges from overgrown hooves to savage beatings. And when the owner can no longer tolerate the beast that he has created, he simply ships the donkey off to auction where it will end up being used for roping practice or will simply open the gate and let him fend for himself.
As I ponder my purpose for writing this article, I think over the many donkeys that I have known and rescued. I think about all the stories that they have told me and all of the hardship that they have had to overcome. I recall the countless hours I have spent talking to them and looking into their eyes. I remember the success stories, the ones who live in new homes and I look out over the ones who are still here. And I want to tell the world “shame on you for not knowing” and maybe “shame on you for not caring”. But that wasn’t why I needed to write this. I really think I wrote this to remind myself that the sacrifice is and always will be more than worth it.