There are some days when you just know how lucky you are and today was one of them. I am in California for the 3rd Annual Donkey Welfare Symposium. The two previous years have presented different challenges to my donkey behaviour skills and knowledge but those have been well and truly surpassed by this year’s challenge.
Here at the University of California, Davis Campus, 20 beautiful, big donkeys arrived for me to work with. Not too challenging until you realise these are 20 donkeys provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), meaning that these donkeys were born and lived wild on the ranges managed by the BLM - essentially they started out as wild donkeys. They are here at the Symposium for us to work with so they can be adopted out on Sunday to find new homes.
The BLM manages America’s mustangs and burros, and as part of their conservation, when their habit becomes overcrowded, the burros are rounded up and removed from the range. They are then kept in large holding facilities until they can be adopted.
Within seconds of arriving after a four hour journey they show the donkeys' amazing survival abilities starting within seconds to eat all and any strips of hay or leaves that were left in the pen from previous occupants. They are calm and yet show the true nature of their species. You see, they are free from any real form of training or handling. They have had their neck and head collars fitted in a handling chute before they left for Davis Campus and you can see, despite their calmness, that everything is a challenge for them. Every shadow, person, doorway - in fact they have never been inside a stable.
Almost immediately I notice a real problem. One of them has a really bad cut on the heel of her hind hoof, so now we have an unhandled animal in a strange place that needs veterinary treatment. So, much earlier than planned, I have to go in with these donkeys and separate her out. They are big donkeys, bigger than your standard British donkey and very well built. But despite their size and strength, they move smoothly and softly like only wild born animals seem to do. Despite being in with them at close quarters, I have no sense of fear. They are gentle and do all they can to avoid me. Not once is there a threat of any sort towards me. They demonstrate the donkeys' true nature - they want to avoid confrontation and escape from me. It is only when we incorrectly domesticate donkeys or horses do they learn their own strength and learn to threaten us to save themselves.
I separate the injured jenny and have to quietly restrain her behind a gate in order to have her safely sedated and completely knocked out so her foot can be worked on. It is not the start I wanted or what I would want to have to do with any donkey, but often training donkeys is not about what is comfortable for us, but rather doing what is comfortable for them. It’s a deep wound but it doesn’t appear to have punctured the hoof capsule so there is a chance for her to heal. She is bandaged and then brought round from the anaesthetic. She takes all of this with the humbling stoic nature of the donkey so common of her species.
Then because she needs a pen of her own I have to move some of the other donkeys through the barn, which involves entering the stable for the first time in their lives. Again while amongst them, provided I move as though I am in thick oil, calmly and smoothly, they do everything they can to avoid any confrontation. It takes 5 minutes of me just standing there before the first donkey enters the stable and another 5 before they move freely in and out. It is amazing how quickly they learn while I move into the stable. A couple allow themselves to be scratched which is just incredibly brave of them.
Just being with them reminds me of the privilege we have when we work with any donkey. It is so easy to take it for granted with our domesticated equines. These donkeys are faster, stronger, bite harder, kick harder than ever I could, but yet they choose not to use that strength against us.
It has been a long hard day for them, and after feed and water it is time to give them some peace and quiet. I am inspired, humbled, excited and privileged to have time learning from these wild burros to help give them a better future and to use them to help educate people to the true nature of donkeys, and without this understanding of their true nature, everything else we do will be more difficult and less donkey centred.