When I got back from the hardware store this morning, I planned to write a column explaining why somebody from New Jersey who’d never seen a donkey in the first half-century of his life now owned three.
As I was heading back from town, the cell phone warbled. My friend Anthony, working at the farm, was calling to say that there was a baby donkey in the pasture. Knowing this had to be a joke, since I had no male donkeys and, to my knowledge, no pregnant ones either, I laughed, fired off some obscene macho banter, and hung up.
When I pulled into the driveway next to the big barn, though, I nearly drove into a fence post. There was a tiny new donkey, soaking wet from amniotic fluid, hugging close to Jeannette, my most recently acquired Sicilian donkey. The afterbirth was close by and fresh. And Jeannette was snorting like a bull and glowering at any interlopers.
No way, I thought.
Way. Obviously, donkeys have a very long gestation period. Jeannette must have been knocked up just before she arrived last spring. I phoned an SOS to the Granville Large Animal Veterinary Practice and ran into the house for some towels.
Jeannette and I are close, thanks to my daily offerings of carrots, apples, and oat cookies. She let me pick up her newborn—I named her Emma, after my own daughter—towel her off, and make sure her throat and eyes were clear. When I scratched her fuzzy little nose, she closed her eyes and went to sleep in my arms. I gave Jeannette some cookies, checked to see that she had milk in her teats—she did, a lot of it—and brushed her down a bit to calm her.
I knelt in front of her and she put her head on my shoulder. “Congratulations,” I said. “Who is the father? You can tell me.” But she just went over to Emma and nosed her.
There aren’t many donkeys born these days, so people from nearby farms began showing up, alerted by the mysterious rural news network by which everyone instantly knows everything. In an hour or so, the vet showed up, gave the donkeys their appropriate shots, said they were fine, and departed. He told me that Emma was, oops, a male. So, Emma became Jesus (using the Spanish pronunciation), thanks to the mysteriously virginal circumstances of his birth.
I felt guilty about the way I’d been mocking Jeanette for her expanding girth and hearty appetite, never guessing that she was eating for two. Jeannette had fortunately chosen an unusually warm day to give birth. A bitter cold wave was approaching in 48 hours, though, so we scurried to find the heat lamps and make a cozy space for Jeannette and Jesus in the barn.
All this made me think even more about why I own donkeys at all. Once, donkeys were the tractors and ATVs of country life, performing agricultural and mercantile tasks that were integral to farming and commerce. Now, they are useless. Local farmers call them “hay-suckers.”
When I got my troubled border collie Orson, we started learning to herd at a sheep farm in Pennsylvania. A lonely old donkey named Carol lived in the adjacent pasture. We bonded; I was enchanted by her soulful eyes and gentle bray, and she loved the apples I brought her and the pats and scratches that accompanied them. When I bought this farm in upstate New York, I imported some of the sheep we’d been herding with. They arrived on a livestock trailer, and Carol showed up with them, a surprise gift from the farmer, who thought she deserved a better life.
Donkey No. 2 joined her when I got a phone call from a woman who described herself as a “Jewish donkey spiritualist,” a term I hadn’t heard before and don’t expect to hear again. Pat bred donkeys and had studied and written about their symbolic significance, their place in the ancient world, and their profoundly spiritual natures.
Both Jewish and Christian theologies are filled with biblical and other references to donkeys, she pointed out. Carol, like all my donkeys, wore a cross on her back, a pattern of dark hair behind the shoulders.
Pat declared that, since donkeys are social sorts, Carol was lonely. She was not aware of her “donkeyness”; having lived with sheep all of her life, she probably didn’t even know she was a donkey. She needed a companion, Pat said. My wife, already embittered (Carol ran up enormous vet bills that first winter), said she could live with Carol being out of touch with her donkeyness. I couldn’t, so soon little Fanny arrived, and then Lulu, her half-sister.
Pat was right about donkeys: They are sweet, powerfully spiritual creatures. Mine have an ostensible purpose: They’re my security detail, fiercely protective of my flock of sheep. They run off stray dogs and coyotes. Since I’ve lost no sheep to these common predators, the donkeys seem to do their jobs well.
But they also—and this is why I have more donkeys than I truly need—attach to people. They nuzzle and lean into humans they like, which can sometimes be disconcerting, but is also touching. They are gentle with children, calm around strangers. They coexist reasonably amiably with my dogs and chickens. My ferocious rodent-massacring barn cat, Mother, sleeps near them often, and last week I came into the barn and saw her curled up next to the baby, both of them dozing comfortably on a pile of straw bedding.
When I come out of the house in the morning, all three girls are waiting at the barnyard gate, wheezily braying for their cookies. Serious about snacks, they’re likely to nose into your pockets if you’re slow to produce them.
But our connection goes beyond food, I think. Almost every day, I sit on a tree stump in the pasture, and one donkey or another—sometimes all three—comes over to nuzzle with me, putting a big furry head on my shoulder or the top of my head. During winter storms, I trudge up to the pole barn and comb ice from their long eye lashes and brush the snow off their coats. They hold still, then nuzzle me in appreciation.
When Carol was sick, I brought a boom box into the barn and we sat listening to Van Morrison sing “Brown-Eyed Girl.” She also loved Willie Nelson and Ray Charles.
Early last winter, Carol again foundered. The vet didn’t think she’d make it through another season of sickness and brutal cold; we agreed that a lethal injection would, at some point, be merciful. Carol died within a couple of days.
A few months later, donkey spiritualist Pat sold her farm. Before she moved away, she sold me Jeanette, one of her oldest donkeys (they live to be 30, even 40). Nobody said anything about anybody being pregnant. But Jeannette was, apparently. So, now there are four. “That’s a lot of hay,” one of my incredulous farmer neighbors observed. “Especially for animals that don’t do anything.”
But he’s wrong. They do a lot for me. They connect me to nature and to history. They’re dutiful watchdonkeys and affectionate companions. They exude patience and calm. In many ways, they’re the heart and soul of my farm.
Once I got over the shock, I was delighted to have Jesus join the clan. If it was not imaginable to live with donkeys a few years ago, it is inconceivable to live without them today. This morning, I ordered another 100 bales of hay.