On a freezing cold Monday morning, after a playful hour with the six little donkeys, Phil and I went straight up to Buffalo Barn, to the Poitou donkeys. Here on the Sanctuary website there is a lot of information about this rare breed of donkey, as well as information about the limited breeding programme that was set up here by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen. Now of course we also have the webcam, so people can watch this lovely group of donkeys from the comfort of their homes or from the screen in the Hayloft Restaurant here at the Sanctuary. Even so, in spite of all this information, I think it's true to say that very few people, apart from Pete and Tracey the grooms, have actually been in a position to get to know these donkeys as individual characters...which is why Phil and I feel very fortunate to be able to spend time with these donks as QTVs. At first the donkeys were wary and would run away, but Pete assured us that in time they would learn to trust us. It's taken several months but I think we're getting there!
I have to start with Hercule, who is probably the largest and has the longest, hairiest coat, and is the younger brother to Gilbert. Their mother, Elsa sadly died in 2007. Hercule and his mum were a bonded pair and although he missed her, he has learned to cope without her. Hercule is the donkey that Pete will sometimes walk down to the centre of the Sanctuary to meet the visitors in the summer. It took a long time for me to be able to catch and groom Hercule for myself. Although both he and Gilbert grew confident enough to be approached by Phil and I for cuddles and fuss, as soon as either of us held a grooming brush or head collar, off they would trot at a great pace!
“Don't take their nonsense - show 'em who's boss!”, was Pete's advice. So one day, I re-found my teacher's voice, “Hercule – stand still!” - and to my amazement, he did! He meekly submitted to having his head collar put on and he tolerated me brushing through his great mane of a coat. Yesterday Hercule came straight over to me and followed me round the yard waiting for his grooming. Once groomed he rested his enormous head on my shoulder for a cuddle and an ear rub. He maybe a large hairy donkey, but he's a big softy who loves to be fussed and loved.
Gilbert has also learned to trust us, although he can be a tad more stubborn than Hercule! Gilbert has this amazing high-trotting gait, which he uses to great effect to avoid capture for a few minutes but will then submit to having a head collar fitted. All well and good – but then he'll flatly refuse to move an inch! There are two tactics to employ, depending on time. The first involves holding the rope taut but ignoring him until he gets bored and starts to walk forward – this can take a long time but it usually works. The other is to call for someone to bring the grooming kit over and then groom him “in-situ”! Like Hercule, Gilbert loves attention and yesterday he was following Phil around like a giant shaggy puppy! He also has this habit of tapping you with his hoof when he thinks you are paying too much attention to another donkey!
Theodore is the eldest Poitou donkey at 23 years of age. He arrived 7 years ago and had always lived alone. When he arrived, Theodore lived with Gilbert and Junior for a while, before being introduced into the main group. Theodore also has a long coat, but was clipped out this summer and is in the process of growing it back again. He is quite an independent donkey and will often wait by the yard gate to meet visitors. I've noticed that Vicky, one of the part-Poitou donkeys, will often keep Theodore company. Yesterday he was half-asleep by the wall, sheltered from the wind and making the most of the sunshine. He doesn't demand attention like so many of the others, but he won't say no to an ear-rub and a cuddle if offered!
Vicky is the only grey donkey in the group and people often don't realise she has Poitou blood, as she looks so different to the others. Vicky has lived here since 1990 and is the mother of Inky, Francoise and Hennie. She is a gentle donkey who loves being groomed. While the others all push and strive for attention, Vicky waits quietly for her turn and never makes a big fuss about anything, I have a real soft-spot for lovely Vicky – she's a sweet and kind donkey.