Is he still here? This was something that was playing in the back of my mind as I drove up the dusty Olive tree lined road approaching El Refugio del Burrito, the Spanish part of The Donkey Sanctuary in Malaga, after all, I hadn’t actually heard of him in a couple of years. It is not something that I relished discovering, the possibility that an animal I had previously worked with has been put to sleep. So I tend to wait and see if anybody remembers the previous work that I might have done with an animal. I remember the blog that I wrote when I was here last time, back in 2013, specifically to help with his behaviour, he would suddenly lunge over the top of the gate to try and bite people, people were afraid to go in with him and he was considered aggressive or dangerous but with some careful work and a little bit of time he allowed me into his paddock and I allowed him into my heart.
The last I heard of him was when he had to have an eye removed due to a serious condition that was causing him considerable discomfort so you can imagine the sense of relief when Danny the farm manager during the course of our training let me know that Dante was still here and that he was a totally different donkey.
When you hear that an animal that has previously had such serious conditions is now considered to be lovely. “He likes people and he is really easy to catch and handle, just his back feet are still a little problem”. “Just his back feet that are a little problem I thought?” Well that’s no problem at all considering where he started. Of course, having a problem with his back feet enabled me to use him as part of our training and to get a chance to work with him which was just like being reunited with an old friend. He put his head straight through the fence as the group went down to work with him greeted by one of the staff, he came out without a head collar into the raceway as calm as you like, straight up to everybody at the fence for a scratch and a tickle. This of course reminded me that one of the biggest problems Dante had was his conflict, and conflict behaviour is so common in equines, it is behaviour driven by the fact that donkeys really struggle between difficult choices, especially when they produce conflict. In Dante’s case, he really wanted to be with people and he actually wanted social contact but people had also done bad things to him and so he feared them so he was stuck in this conflict between wanting people and being worried by what they might do. This conflict is a very common problem that we see in donkeys and mules, they are very social creatures and usually at some point in their lives they have been handled and actually, probably enjoyed some human contact, but as they grow, get bigger, challenge more and become more misunderstood in their behaviour it is all too easy for people to use physical force, aggression and pain to control the animal’s behaviour and thus the conflict becomes established.
Well Dante’s conflict had clearly disappeared and he enjoyed people, he accepted his head collar without a moment’s notice and I was able to greet him with a vigorous ear tickle noticing that I had forgotten that he had lost the tip of one ear in some previous conflict or situation with people, the staff reported that they didn’t even need a head collar to clean his eye on a daily basis.
This is all well and good but what of his feet? Well, with all the other work that the staff had done and by putting him in an environment with other donkeys he had become a lot softer, a lot wiser and certainly a lot greyer than I remember but then he was probably thinking the same about me.
A few minutes basic handling with some emphasis on the correct timing and rewarding heavily the behaviour of standing still and allowing me to touch his legs and he began to yield his feet and allow me to pick them up briefly, a few inches from the floor without kicking. During this process he kicked out a few times but gone was any of the ferociousness of Dante’s old behaviour, these were simply kicks of gentle communication about his final conflicts with people and his concerns about having his feet picked up.
Three years is a lot of time and a lot of behaviour to flow under the bridge, I’ve learnt a great deal more than I knew when I was working with him, from the privilege of working with lots of other horses, mules and donkeys around the world and he certainly had learnt a lot more about people and the kind handling that he had received at El Refugio, his change of environment and a more understanding considered approach created a lump in my throat about what this amazing organisation can provide for donkeys when they are given the chance.
After about 20 minutes work and more scratches and positive reinforcement than you can imagine, partly through necessity and partly through the pleasure of being reunited with an old teacher, he went back to his paddock calmly and quietly but what was most interesting was that after releasing him the old Dante, the one I remember and wrote about three years ago, was so clearly evident as he and another gelding engaged in a ferocious 30 second bout of rearing biting, kicking, threats, braying and physical force, which reminded me of something that I say at the start all my training courses; every donkey that we work with has the power to do us serious damage yet through their grace and true nature they very seldom use that force against us, and as a timely reminder that the old Dante was still in there, yet he had chosen to modify his behaviour with me, allowing the opportunity to learn, he saw off his rival and looked for a few seconds as if he was three years younger and not a moment in time had passed.