Thursday, May 10, 2012

Welcome, New Family Members!

We added a few new members to our farm family this week in the aftermath of last week's traumas (described in my previous post). First, we got 6 Rhode Island Red laying hens so that we could continue to enjoy and market farm-fresh eggs. (Rhode Island Reds are a dual-purpose heritage breed, and according to, "the do-everything bird: they lay exceptionally well, they're valued for their meat, they're extremely cold hardy, and hardy in general." They're also the state bird of Rhode Island!) They are adjusting well to their new home--reveling in the wide open spaces of the pasture and scoping out the many potential perching and egg laying spots. (We hope they'll soon settle on perching and laying inside the coop with the rest of the civilized chicken world. Until then, we'll be doing quite a bit of chicken wrangling!)

After replenishing our flock, we turned to finding an animal that could help us ensure that no more of our feathered or furry kin get snatched by predators. Luckily for me, this meant that we finally had a good excuse to buy the animal of my dreams, the one I've been longing for, hinting at, and searching for since I first dreamed of having a farm. We finally got to buy a donkey!

Donkeys are famous among farmers for effectively defending livestock against coyotes, as well as against foxes, dogs and other potential predators. But donkeys have many other valuable--and lovable--traits as well. You'd never know it from common knowledge of this ancient equine, though, as they have been persistently maligned in popular culture and literature as stubborn, slow, dumb, and ugly. A case in point: this "classic" poem written by G K. Chesterton, in which the repulsive creature's sole redemption is serving as the beast of burden that carried Jesus to his crucifixion.

The Donkey
When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

It's really too bad--and terribly unfair--that donkey's get such a bad rap. For they have been loyal assistants of humankind for thousands of years. And in many areas of the world (including most of the places my anthropological research has taken me), they remain the preferred mode of transport for both cargo and people. Here are some other fascinating facts about these "tattered outlaws of the earth" (gleaned from and other sources):
  • A donkey is stronger than a horse of the same size and can navigate a wider variety of terrain than horses. 
  • Despite popular misconceptions, donkeys are actually highly intelligent. Their curiosity and eagerness to learn make them especially easy to train. (Training a donkey relies upon showing him or her, by words and action, that they can trust you to that you will protect them from harm.)
  • Donkeys have an incredible memory - they can recognize other donkeys they were with up to 25 years ago.
  • Donkeys are not easily startled and are therefore less likely than horses to hurt themselves or others (an especially valuable trait if small children are around).
  • Donkeys have a reputation for stubbornness, but this is due to their highly developed sense of self preservation. They are more independent in their thinking than horses and will reason, then make decisions based on their safety. It therefore is difficult to force or frighten a donkey into doing something it sees as contrary to its own best interest or safety.  
  • Donkeys' large ears help keep them cool--a particularly helpful trait in the desert regions where donkeys originated. Those ears also allow them to hear the call of other donkeys up to 60 miles away. (Their loud bray doesn't hurt their chances, either! While some people find it revolting, I agree with the scores of donkey fans out there who think it's one of the most delightfully unique calls of the animal world.)
  • Because food is scarce in those desert habitats, donkeys utilise 95% of what they eat and therefore do not need as much food as other equines.
  • Donkeys are herd animals and prefer to share their daily lives with other donkeys, or with cattle, goats, or sheep. (Donkeys in a herd will groom each other in a way similar to monkeys and chimps.)
  • Donkeys (particularly jennies and geldings, both of which are gentler and more nurturing than jacks) are often used as guard animals for cattle, sheep and goats since they bond easily with these other farm animals, have a natural aversion to canines, and will keep canines (dogs, wolves, and foxes) away from the herd or flock. They are also commonly fielded with horses due to the perceived calming effect they have on nervous horses. (If a donkey is introduced to a mare and foal, the foal will often turn to the donkey for support after it has left its mother.)
  • In the past:
    • The wealth of the ancient Egyptians was due largely to the precious metals carried from sub-Saharan Africa by donkeys.
    • Donkeys were used to carry silk along the Silk Road from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean in return for trade goods.
    • In Greece donkeys were used for working on the narrow paths between vines and their work in vineyards spread as far as Spain. The donkey was associated with the Syrian God of Wine, Dionysius. 
    • The Roman Army moved donkeys into Northern Europe using them in agriculture, vineyards and as pack animals.
    • The first donkeys came to the Americas on ships of the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495.
  • Today, donkeys continue to be a lifeline to families in many regions of the world. They help with water and wood fuel collection, land cultivation and transportation of produce to market. 
Added to all this is the fact that they are a lot less expensive to purchase and care for than a horse or pony. What's not to love? And my girls and I do love them. We thus could hardly believe our good fortune when their dad suddenly blurted out, on the evening of the coyote attack last week, "Well, it looks like we are going to have to get a donkey now." After months of us girls suggesting, hinting, and pleading for bringing an equine into our fold, it looked like it finally might happen!

The next morning, G-P zipped me an ad he'd found on craigslist, and by noon I had an appointment to visit a nearby farm to see a jenny recently brought in from Kentucky. We were particularly interested in her because the ad said she had been trained to lead and ride and had already worked as a guard for cattle and goats--a rare combination of traits these days. Also, she was described as a Standard--a basic, old-fashioned, no-frills donkey--not one of the more popular Miniatures (which are generally kept as pets or for show) or Mammoths (which cattle farmers often prefer).

We were excited as we headed out to meet her on Saturday morning. But we were anxious, too. We had, after all, visited a number of farms during the past several few months to scope out donkeys and had generally found pitifully neglected, forlorn creatures often living in wretched conditions, covered with skin sores, and often fearful of their owners (one farmer actually demonstrated for us how he "wacks" his donkeys into submission). What a world away these places are from central North Carolina's picturesque horse farms. It's a startling, and very troubling, contrast.

So we approached the farm with both anticipation and dread. But this place was clean and well-organized. The seller seemed knowledgeable about his herd. And the jenny--well, it was love at first sight. She was not only calm and gentle, but also so responsive that I was able to hoist the girls onto her back and lead her around the paddock this very first time we met her. We were sold. And so was she--the very next day! The seller was kind enough to bring her to us on Monday morning.

Ellie Mae Mushroom explores her new home.
She has been settling in beautifully, munching placidly on her hay, exploring the pasture, getting to know the goats, and exchanging innumerable hugs and kisses with Segi and Simi. The three of us have been grooming her, spoiling her with bits of carrots and apples and handfuls of grain (not too much--donkeys are prone to get fat if overfed), and enjoying rides up and down the pasture. 

When I was a little girl, on every birthday I can remember, I closed my eyes to blow out my candles and wished for a horse. I was never led to believe that I would ever get a horse, but it didn't matter--I continued wishing the same wish every year. Until eventually I grew up and grew out of it. But once our family decided that we would try to farm, the wish returned--this time not for a horse but for a donkey. I'm not sure I believed this wish would ever come true either. But all of a sudden, in the course of a couple of days, it has. And the best part is that I get to share this childhood-dream-come-true experience with my daughters. What a lucky girl.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Omg what a great story you tell! Such a gift to share this with you. I hope only to meet miss ellie mae mushroom one day!!!