My First Donkey
I ought to explain why it was that the police thought I might take a dying donkey onto my farm, an unusual thing for a city boy like me, who, for most of my life, thought that donkeys lived only in India or Spain.
I asked the animal control officer how many people they had asked to consider taking Simon, wondering how I had come to her attention and that of the New York State Police. “Just you,” she said.
“Oh,” I said in one of those mind-altering moments when you get a glimpse of how others might see you.
“We knew you had some donkeys and loved them,” she said. “I read your books.”
I’m an author and photographer who owns a farm in upstate New York. I live there with my wife, Maria, and numerous animals. My life has never proceeded in straight lines; zigs and zags are more my style. If my life on a farm is characterized by any one idea, it would be this: one thing leads to another.
And it was Carol that led, in zigs and zags, to Simon.
I believe the first donkey I ever laid eyes on was wearing a straw hat and hee-hawing at Elmer Fudd in a Saturday morning cartoon. I remember the donkey had enormous teeth and was rather loud and goofy.
I never saw a real donkey until I was nearly fifty years old. I had taken my border collie out to a sheep farm in Pennsylvania to learn how to herd sheep. The experience transformed me in many ways. I decided to buy my own farm, I began writing about dogs, and I encountered a donkey who was to alter the nature of my life.
Carol was nearly twenty years old when I met her. She was living in a small corral. Like many donkeys, Carol seemed an afterthought, a misfit. Donkeys come to farms for all kinds of reasons. Somebody might trade a donkey for an old horse or for some hay. A farmer might come across one and take pity on it, or suspect it might be useful down the road.
Sometimes donkeys luck out and end up on rich horse farms, keeping horses company, getting to eat the good hay and grain, and are even quartered indoors in heated stalls. But that is not the fate of most donkeys. Donkeys have lived with humans as long as or longer than dogs have, but donkeys haven’t figured out how to worm their way into human hearts quite so well. Their history and general treatment do not speak well of the generosity and mercy of human beings.
The farmer couldn’t even quite remember how Carol had ended up with him but she had been in that corral every day for the sixteen years that he had owned her. Once in a while he tossed some hay over the fence and filled up the rusty bathtub with fresh water, but mostly, Carol survived off of brush and bark, pooled rain water, and water from a small muddy stream that ran through her corral. Twice a year, a farrier came to trim her hooves.
The farmer was busy, and he conceded that most of the time, he forgot about Carol. Farm animals are not pets; they are pretty hardy. Donkeys are especially hardy, and can go far on very little.
The thought of Carol alone for years in that tiny patch of woods haunted me, offering some of the first stirrings of an emotional notion of compassion, but even then, my response to her was to bring some apples whenever I visited the farm; it didn’t go much deeper than that. I was distracted, busy, I had a kid, other worries; the life of a donkey seemed very remote to me.
Carol was not good-natured or accepting, and she did not wish to have her hooves trimmed. After a while, the battered farrier just gave her a drugged apple before going to work. She still managed to bite and kick him at least once every time. The farmer told me this by way of cautioning me to be careful around her. “She has sweet eyes,” he said, “but she is not sweet.” Maybe, I thought, that was why he had left her alone in that corral all these years.
Carol’s corral was right next to the big pasture where I was learning to herd sheep with my dog, and I would see her staring at me. It unnerved me. She seemed to be trying to tell me something, but since I had never come near a real donkey in my life, I had no idea what it was she might be saying.
I felt bad for her, in the way middle-class people who grew up in cities feel bad for animals who live their natural lives out in the real world. We just can’t help but project feelings into their heads. I just assumed she was hungry, and she seemed quite lonely all by herself in that corral, staring at me.
The first time I brought her apples, I walked over to the corral, my pockets stuffed with some big, red, juicy ones. Carol leaned over the fence, grabbed the first apple—and nearly my thumb with it—and crunched it judiciously and hungrily. My dog was standing back, staring at Carol, trying to keep an eye on the sheep who were grazing nearby.
I reached for another apple, but Carol was not willing to be patient. She walked right through the fence, dragging wire and fence posts behind her, put her ears down, and charged my terrified dog, who took off toward the other side of the pasture. The sheep needed no invitation to leave, and they took off in the other direction. Carol then turned to me, ripped the apple out of my pocket, and began nosing my other pockets for more.
“Hey, hey,” I said, not sure what commands to give a donkey. I was shocked to realize she could have walked through the fence any day of those sixteen years she had spent there had she chosen to. It was my first real demonstration of donkey thinking. The first rule of the donkey ethos: everything is their idea.
It took a while for the irritated farmer to get Carol back inside—a loaf of bread did it—and he warned me in no uncertain terms to leave her alone.
I couldn’t do that, of course. Every time I came herding, I brought apples and carrots. I would climb into her corral with the treats so she would have no reason to bust out.
There are some people who are deeply drawn into the rescue of animals. I am not one. I think in some ways animal rescue is too intense for me, too difficult. Perhaps that’s one reason I love happy, healthy, well-bred working dogs. I love to do things with them; I love the way they enter my life easily and come along with me.
But I fell in love with Carol, this grumpy, independent creature. I worried about her. I wanted to help her. It did something for me—something selfish—to treat her well. It fed something inside of me.
In her own way, she was quite affectionate with me. She loved it when I rubbed the inside of her ears or tickled the sides of her nose. She would not let me brush her, and if I didn’t have an apple, she would lower her head and butt me in the side or rear end. Carol made no pretense about our relationship—she wanted the apples, and if she felt like it, she might allow me to show her some affection. Or not. Donkeys cannot be bought or bribed, only appeased.
And Carol . . . well, she was not very nice. She wouldn’t have fit into one of those cute donkey tales in cartoons and movies. Sometimes you had to like the idea of her more than Carol herself. This was perhaps the first inkling I had about the vagaries of compassion—we tend to feel it for people and animals we like; it is hard to feel it for people and animals we don’t like.
Whenever I was out herding, Carol would come over to the fence and hang her head on the outside, her ears turning like radar scanners, eyeing me soulfully with her big brown eyes. Somehow, it seemed as if I were her human, and she was my donkey, even though my home at the time was in suburban New Jersey, where donkeys played no part in the life of anyone.
A year or so after I met Carol, I bought a farm in upstate New York—I called it Bedlam Farm—and I bought some of the sheep I had been working with. The farmer hired somebody with a trailer to drive them up to me. If I had never met a donkey before Carol, I also had never set foot on a farm before in my life—I was raised in Providence, Rhode Island, and had lived in New York City, Dallas, Boston, Washington, and Baltimore before moving to New Jersey. The farm would, in my mind, become a laboratory for my newfound passion to write about dogs, animals, and rural life. Bedlam Farm consisted of ninety acres, a Civil War–era farmhouse, four barns, and large areas of fenced-in pasture. It was a good place for sheep and a paradise for donkeys, although I had no plans to acquire any. I had heard from farmers that donkeys were wonderful guard animals, and would keep coyotes and predators away from sheep. But I had my hands full just trying to survive on my new farm. When the trailer of sheep arrived, the driver backed it into the pasture and opened the gates.
The first creature out was Carol, who looked around disdainfully, snorted, kicked one of the sheep away from her, and put her nose in my pocket. The driver handed me a note from the farmer, which read, “Here is Carol. You love her so much, you can feed her.”
So began my life with Carol. She was, from the first, the most imperious creature I had ever met, human or animal. In hot summers, she loved to hang out in the big shady barn. She could hardly believe her good fortune having acres of pasture to wander and all the grass and fresh water she might want.
Carol was an older donkey, and she had lived outdoors for years without shelter or good, nutritious food. I saw her limping, and had a large-animal vet come and check her out. Carol did not wish to be examined. She butted the vet into the wall, tried to bite him, and nearly kicked him through the window. We got a halter on her and cross-tied her to the sides of the barn. She had a laundry list of ailments, from foundering—a painful wasting disease of the hooves—to swollen joints and gums. She was, the vet said, in great pain, and he gave her some shots and handed me a bunch of long needles to stick in her butt later in the day. Then he left.
That night, when I went out to administer the medications, I got another major lesson in donkey thinking. They read intentions. When I came out to give Carol an apple, she was standing by the gate, meek as a kitten. If I came out with some needles or medicines in my pocket, she was off and running. That night it was −20°F, and a stubborn human and a stubborn donkey had an epic confrontation on my farm’s hilly pasture. Carol took off in a blinding storm, hobbling and stumbling up a hill, as my border collie Rose and I gave chase. I caught her an hour later on the top of the hill and stuck the needle in her butt while she dragged me all the way back down the hill. I got frostbite in three fingers that night. I learned that if you want to give a donkey a needle, get her in a small stall with a grain bucket, hide the needle out of sight, and then stick her when her mouth is full.
Despite all her ailments, she kept giving me donkey lessons.
Excerpted from Saving Simon by Jon Katz. Copyright © 2014 by Jon Katz. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.