So how do you know what a donkey is thinking? Well, first you ask a lot of questions, and then you let the donkey tell you for themselves. Working with behaviour requires you to have a passion for uncovering the truth, it’s not that people lie or deliberately mislead me, it is simply that we all have our own perceptions of the same situation. One person’s cheeky donkey is another naughty, difficult donkey, another’s dangerous, aggressive donkey is someone else’s defensive, confused donkey.
So for Dante, I have to gather as much evidence as possible before I can make up my mind as to the cause of his behaviour, literally, his future, my health and safety and that of the rest of the team is depending on me being able to get to the bottom of his problems. I finally reach our rescue centre, El Refugio del Burrito, here in Spain by the middle of the afternoon. I am really keen to see Dante and observe his behaviour for myself, but first I have a lot of questions to ask and a lot of listening to do.
The staff here at the centre are the ones that rescued Dante, they have nursed him back to health from a horribly infected eye and massive abscess between his ear and his eye. So they know him better than anyone, they have the key to unlocking his behaviour I just have to find it.
After 90 minutes of questioning this is what I am able to piece together.
He was living with a group of stallions when he was rescued with a massive infection to his eye and head and the vet also believes a fractured skull next to his eye. The infection was so bad the eye was completely closed and he had no sight in it, which immediately reduces the likely cause of his behaviour being he feels vulnerable and protective after losing the sight in his eye.
Despite all the treatment and injections he required when he arrived, he was extremely good and tolerated lots of painful treatments and intervention without a sign of aggression. Which might indicate the current behaviour isn’t pain based. However, because of the severity of the injury it may have been that he may have been feeling particularly unwell and under the weather so he did not show his true character. Changes of environment and herd companions can really affect any equine's behaviour so it may be these changes made him more subdued.
As he started to feel better it appears he did start to test the boundaries with the staff, which is perfectly normal behaviour. The acting Farm Manager at the time, said Dante did face up to her one day and she did have to stand her ground with him, she felt you couldn’t completely trust him before any of this big really aggressive behaviour started. Interestingly the vet can still handle him and he doesn’t attack the vet.
The turning point in his behaviour could have been the day he ran at a member of staff and sensibly they got out of his way and jumped out of the paddock thinking they were going to get attacked. This might have started the labelling process. You see when we label an animal as dangerous, difficult, naughty, etc we change the way we interact with that animal and we see their behaviour in ways that we think proves we are right. He also had to have a second set of stronger antibiotics which were more difficult to administer and he had a different groom take over his care.
In an attempt to gain his trust he was given apples from a bucket, which he clearly enjoyed as he came running across the paddock for them snapping and threatening the staff who were holding the bucket. This means that this unwanted behaviour could have been accidentally rewarded, so Dante thinks pulling faces and threatening to bite works, he thinks he has trained people to bring him apples, “easy to train these two legs!”
He is also unpredictable, some days being worse than others, but then we all have days like that don’t we? It could be that the weather affects his behaviour like it does most animals, but may be it exaggerates his normal behaviour making it look really bad. Or, perhaps the damage to his skull causes him some discomfort when the atmospheric pressure changes with different weather fronts. This unpredictability makes it much harder and more dangerous to work with because from moment to moment you don’t know what you are going to get.
All of this story was piecing together to give me a picture of why he might be doing what he is, but it was time for Dante to tell me if his “two legged” carers were telling the truth, it was time to meet him and watch him so that he could tell me his story. I don’t mean in some mythical telepathic connection between donkey and man, if only it was that easy, but rather by watching his behaviour you can begin to understand the donkey's perception of what is going on. I have a saying, “the animal is always right” this doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want, it means that they will always act correctly for the principles of behaviour and learning that are occurring. So, if you watch closely enough you can see what the donkey knows is happening regardless if this is the human's perception or not.
On first approaching his paddock he was pacing a little, seeming anxious. However, I quickly realised that it was nearly feeding time, my late arrival and all my questions meant it was late in the afternoon and he was anticipating his hay. Then Monica approached him from the outside of his pen, he raised his head and looked like he was going to get angry, as Monica stepped back he turned sideways on and offered his back for a scratch through the gate. “Hang on a minute,” he just asked for a scratch, and he got it. I was beginning to realise this is one seriously smart animal.
Territorial donkeys, truly aggressive donkeys don’t tend to ask for a scratch. Then he did it again, now this changes things. Is he really aggressive or has he just got humans trained to scratch him when he pulls faces?
Once his hay had arrived, he shared it nicely through the fence with one of the lovely big mules he lives next to. So, I walked over to stand alongside him. I wanted to see if he was going to show me any warning signs or become defensive of his hay, but he didn’t. Instead he lifted his head, made a face at me and then brayed full on about a foot from my face, then turned side on and asked for a scratch just the same as he had done for Monica.
When I changed sides of the pen he left his food to come over and see what I was doing before heading back to his hay. I stood on his fence and leaned into his pen and he showed no signs of aggression or being upset.
So what did he tell me? He told me that he wants human interaction, he wants people to scratch him and be near him, that food is important to him but not so important that he has to threaten humans that get too close to it.
There is no doubt that he can bite and be very dangerous despite what I had just seen but why? After all there was the fractured skull and eye injury which could have come from another donkey, or running into something or perhaps he tried to bite his human handler and was punished severely for it, we shall never know.
It seems that as usual behaviour is not what it seems and no wonder it is so difficult to understand, by now the combinations of possibilities are whizzing around my head like crazy.
Having been a stallion for 12 years (it turns out he is 13 not 27 years of age) it may be that this challenging behaviour is who he is as an individual, and it was suppressed initially by feeling so unwell. Did I mention he also has part of an ear missing? This strong character was then kept in check through confident handling and awareness of the potential problems. The treatments made him a little wary of people, but then he suffers from the conflict of clearly liking a scratch and people and being slightly worried about what they might do, this always leads to problems as equines aren’t good with conflicting emotions, neither are we for that matter.
Then one day he runs up to a groom and they leave, and his world changes, he starts to try and learn about people, how each one works and how to get food and scratches. He learns that pulling faces and running up to people gets you more attention. Then this behaviour grows, when the very scientifically named schedule of reinforcement means that he has to try harder to get attention and the more difficult he becomes to handle and so naturally he receives less handling and then the viscous circle starts. On top of that he is bored, we desperately need to enrich his environment so he can use his brain and release some of his frustrations before he has to work with me.
You see behaviour is seldom caused by one thing. It is most often a combination of things interacting over time with the natural character and behaviour of the individual donkey.
So what have I got to do? Retrain Dante to understand how to get what he wants in a safer way, change his environment, help the staff understand Dante’s behaviour, train the staff in behavioural techniques and create a training programme for him to follow over the coming months. Not much for a couple of days work then.
However, first of all I have find out if my hunch about his behaviour is true and the only way to do that it to get in the pen with him and see what he does. That’s the moment of truth, if he is having a bad day that could a serious problem for me.