My Guardian Donkey: Burden of Beasts

Sue Dick
18 Min Read

Here on Ivy Hill Farm, there are two epochs: BC (Before Clara) and AD (After Donkey).  In the long-ago days of Ivy Hill BC, coyotes were a fixture in the pastures.  Newly carved from the Manitoba wilderness, our pasture windrows still bled sap when we realized there would be a problem keeping livestock in them (in an uneaten state).

The coyotes were invariably large, long-legged creatures with intelligent eyes.  I admired their natural beauty as I hated their equally natural inclination to attempt to feed their pups our lamb and beef.  Unlike the solitary coyotes I saw from time to time slinking across the mile roads, the ones that flitted through our barbed wire and loped confidently from oak cluster to oak cluster were never alone.  In pairs and once, unexpectedly, in a trio, they trotted through, confident in their numbers.

They’d stay away from the yard but our dogs (secret cowards at heart) wouldn’t venture outside the relative safety of the pool of light cast by the yard fixture.  The coyotes seemed to discover this early in their occupation and would mockingly yip from just down the road.  This canine jeering was never enough to incite my three dogs to pursuit and I fancied that as the coyotes trotted off to begin the night’s mischief their eyes would be alight with laughter and contempt for their poor domesticated cousins.

Running both sheep and the world’s smallest natural breed of cattle, the Irish Dexter, was not for the faint of heart in fields such as ours.  Dreams would frequently be punctuated with a coyote’s high howls and staccato yips.  The house lights would duly come on and I’d trudge, half awake, carrying my flashlight and accompanied by a slinking dog, to the pasture.  I marveled at the sheer number of stars which only seemed to come out after I had gone to bed.

On these nocturnal excursions to the pasture, as the sleep trickled from my body, I would begin the tense listening for stealthy sounds.  Concerned about encountering a pack of coyotes, I wondered if the dog I had cajoled from his comfy spot in the mudroom would keep them occupied long enough for me to turn tail and run, fleet as a deer, back to the house.

I picked my way down the path carefully.  The hazel bushes on either side held only nut clusters and the odd benign chipmunk during the day, but in the dark of night I was certain they willingly harbored bears of all sizes.  To my credit, it was not a completely illogical worry as we did see bears from time to time and bears do love hazelnuts.

At last, I’d be panning my flashlight (which always seemed on the point of burning out because the only time I remembered the batteries were almost dead was when I was outside, in the dark, using them) over the placid cows.  They stood quietly or lay, chewing their cud.  Their eyes reflected back a bright green in the feeble beam, their gazes mildly curious, wondering what Farmer was doing out at this hour.

Of course, it goes without saying that by the time I reached my nocturnal destination any coyote in the vicinity had either long fled or wisely watched from the dark as I shone the light around in futility.  What would I have done (except let escape a startled expletive) had I seen any, I’m not sure.  We had a .22 but I’ve never felt comfortable carrying around a loaded gun, and a shot in the dark was just that; the likelihood of me hitting anything other than one of my own animals was very slim.

We needed a livestock guardian animal to be there when I couldn’t.  One who could see as well as the coyotes in the dark and not be reliant on the feeble beam from the flashlight.  There are three main types of guardian animals: dog, llama, and donkey.  Our own craven canines had already been proven inadequate for the task and I didn’t want to add another.  As well, there was the fact that our cattle and sheep had never seen any dogs other than ours (and coyotes, of which, presumably, they were afraid).

If their interactions with our dogs through the fence were any indication, the sheep would run in terror from their protector and the cows (possessors of wicked, curving horns) would try to skewer it.  I believe it was the presence of these horns which thus far had kept predation to a minimum.  They were likely able to defend themselves against one coyote for the most part, but ours were social rather than solitary and two Wile E’s were too many.  More dogs were out.

I don’t wish to offend anyone when I say, I’ve never understood the logic behind llamas as guardian animals.  How can a telescopic-necked camelid whose only real defenses are tiny stamping hooves like a sheep’s or spitting like a rebellious teen, protect against marauding packs?

Donkeys.  We sagely agreed.  A donkey would be a piece of cake to keep and would do the job effectively.  Known and utilized the world over as effective livestock guardians, a belligerent equine was just the ticket to protect our wee Dexter calves from becoming coyote canapés.  I felt supremely confident in my abilities to read a donkey’s body language and use that knowledge to win her over.  I would bond with her as quickly as with one of my horses, Apache.  In no time, I told myself (and others) she’d be eating from the palm of my hand; literally.  Having put in some time helping break colts in my previous incarnation to “Farmer” (that of “Cowgirl”, an all-too-brief stint due to the financial constraints of being 16 and without employment), I felt eminently qualified.  I was already congratulating myself when off we went to search for a guardian donkey.

The reality was a bit different (as is often the case with expectations).  She was an untouched yearling when we brought her home.  A beautiful chocolate brown with a cream-colored muzzle, her eyes were highlighted with dark rimming making it appear as if she wore kohl.  She was the size of a small horse with frightening hooves the size of salad plates.  Temporarily without a name, that was to change shortly.

As she careened around the pasture braying for her lost herd I felt a small wavering of confidence.  Scattering the cattle, unseen, in front of her like leaves when she burst through a group, she seemed oblivious to all but a blind need to escape.  As I followed at a distance inside the pasture, I wondered when she would realize the cows she had run over were the ones she had to bond with.

On impulse I imitated her screeching bray and froze when she sat down in mid gallop, rear dragging through the sand and then swinging around, ran straight for me.  She gave every indication she was going to run me down and every story I’d ever heard (people always seem to know someone who had a bad experience with a donkey, once you tell them you’ve bought one) flashed through my mind.  I had every intention of standing my ground but in the end, when it seemed collision was imminent, I dove through our barbed wire fence.  Five strands of pointy dissuasion, the wire shredded my pants.  Indeed I was hooked and tangled at the shin, collapsed in a heap with red furrows beginning to appear, as if by magic, where the barbs had relieved me of my skin.  She stopped and watched me for a moment, mirth in her jaundiced eye, and then walked off, pausing to delicately crop a thistle.

She was named the next day when I was able to observe first-hand the manner in which donkeys are such accomplished guardians.  I was inside the house making myself a much-deserved “Shandy”, known in my Spanish household as a “Clara”, when I surmise the following happened:

Our happy dog, “Rowdy” (a strange moniker for a chocolate lab that spent so much time sleeping we would check to make sure he was still alive, perhaps he never lived up to his potential), went to see the donkey.  I’m sure it was a tail-wagging, tongue-out affair as he trotted over in a welcoming fashion.

The ensuing commotion drew me from the kitchen.

The donkey’s brays were strident in the heavy summer air and Rowdy’s answering volley of barks were playful and uncomprehending.  She fixed him with a baleful eye, dilated her nostrils, and, pinning her ears, charged.  Braying, she swung and kicked him almost the length of a bus.  As I fumbled at the gate closure and Rowdy righted himself (with a perplexed inward look that made me wonder if he’d broken ribs) she kicked him again.  She swung to face him and stomped him with her front hooves for thoroughness.

By this time I had reached them, my heart in my mouth, and I drove her off.  I was astounded to see him get up slowly and shake himself off.  Gingerly, he followed me home.  Thanks in part to what I’m certain must be a two-inch-thick skull, Rowdy survived the attack and, as far as I know, never went into the pasture again.  As I could never look at her again without remembering this incident, “Clara” she became.

In short order, Clara the donkey did become part of the herd.  Unable to find the more suitable company of a Jack, she had no choice but to settle for the cows.  They grazed in companionable silence, friends only by proximity.  In the winter months when we fed the animals bales she became the pushy one, pinning her ears and thumping the cows with her hooves to get the choicest spots.  Sturdy creatures that they were, they barely seemed to notice her tantrums other than to give her wider berth and seem mildly surprised at the drum-like sound of her hooves thumping their sides.

She became tolerant of my presence, but didn’t always allow me into her personal space.  Bipolar, sometimes she would eagerly seek me out where I was working on fencing, or cutting thistles before they could go to seed.  On these occasions she would stand close up against me, touching.  A friendly and companionable gesture that softened my attitude towards her, I would scratch her and decide I really did like her.  Other times she only got close enough to make sure it was me she was snubbing and in ultimate equine rudeness slowly turn her backside to me and saunter away, leaving little doubt as to her feelings.

Clara was full of other surprises too.  She came bred, but hadn’t the courtesy to divulge this until Nature outed her.  Donkeys, being somewhat low-slung and potbellied, are of the perfect shape to conceal a surprise pregnancy.  As the months went on, coinciding with the greening of the pastures, she grew rotund and we commented to each other what easy keepers donkeys were.

Eleven months from when we’d bought her, our oldest son came running in from the pasture saying Clara had a foal with her.  Unwilling to believe in immaculate conception or a fly-by-night Jack surreptitiously visiting our pastures, I wondered at my child so unable to tell the difference between a foal and a calf (of which there were many).  He led me to a sandy hollow in vindication where Clara was laying peacefully with a tiny foal stretched out beside her.  I walked closer carefully.  If she was so unpredictable before, how would she be with a new foal?  Of course, I now realized, a lot of her moody behavior may have been explained by her unknown pregnancy.  She lazily flicked her ears at my approach but made no move to get up.  Equally unconcerned the little foal turned it’s plush grey head towards me.  Both watched mildly as I gently stroked the foal and spoke in a soft voice.  A quick lift of a hind leg revealed we had a new jennet on the farm.  And so “Poppy” joined out family.

Guardian Donkey

Despite Clara’s fearsome personality, motherhood seemed to mellow her somewhat.  She didn’t object to my presence around the foal and would only watch with detached curiosity as I gained Poppy’s trust.  As long as I didn’t try to touch Clara, she didn’t seem to care.

Over time Poppy became what I had expected a donkey to be, in my original ignorance.  She was so trusting and even-tempered (she must take after her father, we laughed) she was easily halter-broken, came when you called her, and would pick up her feet.  Unlike her unpredictable mother, who had resumed her hostile and erratic behavior shortly after weaning, Poppy was a pleasure to be around.  Even the cows seemed to prefer her company and the little calves would try to entice her to join their games, ropy tails held high.

And Clara?  She has days when I can touch her or (joyous) rest my head against her.  More often than not she moves away, uninterested in the human-donkey dynamic enjoyed by her more level-headed daughter.

Even considering Clara, and certainly considering Poppy, donkeys were an unmitigated success on the farm.  Where once coyotes were a common sight and sound here on the Hill, the mother-daughter duo has all but banished them.  It’s rare to hear one now in our fields and we’ve never seen one.  I no longer fumble outside in the dark trying to find them (and worried I might) knowing that as I lay safe in my bed Clara’s got it all under control.  We’ve not had a single loss to predation since the arrival of donkeys to our fields.

The other day I gave my husband pause.  He seemed really surprised and I’m not sure why.  All I said is that I was thinking of having Poppy bred…

Guardian Donkey

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