"We have a problem right now with one of the donkeys from Fuente de Piedra." As the Sanctuary's behaviourist this is always the worst start to an email I can get. There is a confused donkey perhaps in pain or scared that is in need of urgent help, it is in a different country and our European staff who care for this animal need help and support as soon as possible. You see, the staff at our rescue centre are really experienced and they work with donkeys and mules all day and everyday from difficult backgrounds, who need understanding and training. So when they are asking for my help the behaviour must be very unusual or really dangerous. In this case it turns out to be both.
It is really hard to be sat here in the UK trying to give advice to our staff thousands of miles away without being able to see the donkey and get a feel for the problem, and if the advice I give is wrong I can put a member of staff at risk or make the problem worse. I want to jump straight on a plane and go and help.
You see working with behaviour and understanding the minds of donkeys and mules is a bit like being a behavioural detective. You have to ask lots of questions and eliminate lots of possibilities before you can be sure you have the right answer to the question why is the donkey behaving like this. Sometimes their behaviour stems from a lack of training, experience, or from bad experiences. Sometimes it is just normal donkey behaviour and we need to change the environment or help the animal's carers gain more knowledge and skills, often it is pain, medical conditions or fear. Occasionally, it is a learn behaviour which the donkey has worked out solves a problem they face, such as how to avoid people or pain and stay comfortable. There is no way to know except ask lots of questions, especially when you can't see the animal for yourself.
So I start by finding out a little about our 27 year old donkey, Dante from our team in Spain
"He was rescued with a very bad injury in one eye and has had lots of treatments, injections, a surgery to remove the eye, castration, complications with the castration, another surgery with total anesthetises, more treatments... Right eye removed after severe infection".
"The problem is that his behaviour has changed drastically and he has become very aggressive. He bites whoever approaches him and also kicks. I am very worried about the safety of the grooms, I have been bitten myself by him, and at least 4 of the grooms have been bitten as well. He is out of control when a person comes into his paddock."
To add to all that we have to think about his natural personality and learning style and this is what we know.
"He is particularly bright and as a result, a fast learner for both good and bad behaviour."
"What would you advise?"
My advice was, "Stay out of his paddock!" The staff at El Refugio del Burrito are good but I just can't risk offering advice that could get them hurt.
From the information I had this sounds as though all the problems stem from all the interventions, operations and injections, so he has come to associate humans with pain and discomfort hence he has become defensive. This will have been reinforced if he has bitten people and they have not caught him. Even if they never were going to, if in his mind biting and kicking means people leave you alone then he will offer more kicking and biting - he is a smart donkey, and he has figured out how to train the two legs!
As far as I can tell he is just being defensive, the pain, conflict and discomfort will cause a lot of stress, and we all get more defensive and liable to lash out when we are stressed. But to be sure we have asked if the vet who has treated him can he be sure this behaviour isn't as a result or neurological problems or medical condition.
It is quite hard for us humans to understand the differences between defensive behaviour and aggressive behaviour, after all they both get you hurt if the donkey kicks or bites you. So one of my most important tasks is to ensure the staff do not take a view of him as aggressive as this label would mean it will be difficult for them to work with him in future, and my aim is not only to help Dante but also to help the staff learn to work with him and stay safe too.
Luckily I do have to do some training for the staff at El Refugio del Burrito so I will get a chance to meet Dante, assess him myself, work with him, and help the staff too. But what if he is just too dangerous? What if I can't help him? What if I don't have enough time? By the sound of it I could get hurt if I make a mistake and that would be the worst thing for him as then no one would trust him.
I guess I will find out the answers to these questions and others when I get to meet Dante at our rescue centre in Spain tomorrow.