My first encounter with a herd of burros took place on a cold, windy winter day in Washington state. The green, gently rolling hills were covered with cedar, fir, and hemlock, as well as salal, and the lush foliage extended out thirty acres on the property owned by their caretaker, Paige. It was donkey heaven.
“They love to eat all of it,” Paige said. “They’re vegetarian browsers, and they’ll eat shrubs, grass, sticks, and rotten wood. I can smell the aroma of fir trees on their breath sometimes when I get close.”
I arrived with a bag full of carrots, and the excited animals pressed forward against the railing in the barn to get one, leaving the more shy members of the herd behind. Even the elderly ranch dog loved carrots, posturing to get a few for himself. However, I did manage to save some for our individual donkey sessions, as I was sure the animals I would be reading would be shy and reluctant, most likely needing a bit of coaxing.
Paige is one of a handful of authorities on donkeys. In 1990 she established the first abuse rescue group for them in Washington state and is very knowledgeable about the animal’s temperament, health, mistreatment, history, and veterinary care. She also, luckily, found her perfect assistant in Kay, who had recently bailed out of the corporate grind to fulfill her passion for animals on a horse ranch.
Bored behind a desk, Kay relinquished the hefty salary for an eight-dollar-an-hour dream job as a ranch hand, where she fell in love not only with the daily companionship of the animals but also with the ranch manager. After she and Richard were married, they spotted an ad in a newspaper looking for a couple who wanted to run a ranch and care for a herd of donkeys. Kay told me she was deeply moved by Paige’s heart-centered approach to her animals, and it wasn’t long before she fell in love with the donkeys.
Paige was conscientious about the needs of her beloved herd, both physically and psychologically. She was most interested in getting more information on the peculiar behaviors of about half a dozen of these magnificent animals, so she and Kay brought each of the donkeys she wanted me to communicate with into the barn one at a time.
Tillie, the donkey Paige was most concerned about, was scheduled to go first. It took some doing to round her up and herd her into the barn. She was extremely nervous about being singled out. Not only did I get a profound sense of the jitters in Tillie, but her eyes also told the truth of her state of mind as they darted from human to exit door: She was poised to turn around and bolt at any minute.
Tillie wanted to know right away what we wanted with her, so I imagined her surrounded by a calming green energy and explained that I just wanted to talk. Pressing against a wall, I turned myself sideways so she could see me better. I also let her know I would not touch her unless she gave me permission.
Her favorite handler, the kind and gentle Kay, along with her owner and caretaker, Paige, were also there, which gave Tillie some comfort. She was just beginning to trust them, and now they were introducing another complete stranger to her. While reserving judgment about why I was really there, Tillie soon opened up to me. She had a lot to say.
I’m not sure where I belong. Is this my permanent home? she asked me.
Sending me a feeling of having been moved around a lot, her message was one of being unwanted. She showed me a picture of being owned by an older man who continually grumbled about having to take care of an animal he didn’t want, and of overheard conversations that let her know he wanted to get rid of her.
I felt that this lack of love and care had been her experience more than once. I also told Paige that with her previous owners, Tillie could not count on being fed or watered. Meals were intermittent. To make matters worse, the donkey’s low self-esteem was causing the other members of the herd to pick on her. As a result of moving around, she wasn’t sure whether she could settle in with them and become a real member of the group.
Paige wanted me to tell Tillie that she didn’t have to perform any particular service in order to be loved and cared for.
“What does Tillie need to feel more comfortable here?” she asked.
The message came back loud and clear.
“Time,” I said.
On a follow-up phone call two days later, these messages were validated. Paige told me that Tillie had been rescued from a farm in Ohio where an elderly man had a large herd. Their only water came from an irrigation ditch, and it wasn’t good water.
The man fed the animals only occasionally.
Tillie had come to Washington with her sister. Kept in a stall for six months without human contact, she was dirty but wary of grooming or brushing. Although the woman who had rescued Tillie from the Ohio farm cared about her animals, she didn’t have much money and couldn’t pay for a farrier to care for the donkey’s feet. With a new marriage and a new baby to attend to, her owner wasn’t home much. Clearly, Tillie wanted some reassurances that she would be staying at Paige’s ranch, where a donkey could count on being well cared for.
As we stood chatting with Tillie, Paige scratched Tillie’s hind quarters to relax and soothe her, but after a few minutes the donkey gave a kick, which threw a sizable rock across the room, making a startling racket as it hit the metal barn door siding. Paige took a step back from Tillie.
“Okaaaay!” she said. “I won’t scratch you there!”
“I don’t think that was meant as an aggressive move,” I said. “I think she was trying to get a rock out of her hoof.”
I wanted to double check this later, so the next day I tuned in to Tillie telepathically from home to ask her about it. As I began to sense Tillie’s feelings around the event, I felt tickled, as if her leg had been asleep and Paige’s scratching had sent the blood flow back through it. Paige had her own interpretation of the event.
“I knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me. Donkeys are very accurate when they kick, and if she had wanted to hurt me, she would have,” she said.
During the follow-up, Tillie also let me know she had ultra-sensitive hearing, damaged by firecrackers and gunshots going off near where she had been penned.
My ears are sensitive and that’s why I love it when Kay whispers loving words quietly in my ears, she said.
The next donkey I talked to was Giuseppe, a feisty young jack, a male donkey, who often initiated rough play with other members of the herd. I asked him how he got the long, smooth scar on his ear.
Other members of the herd sometimes play rough here, he said, but it’s not serious and no real harm done.
Both Paige and Kay told me that they thought it resulted from playing roughly with another donkey friend because they bit each other’s ears quite often.
One clear feeling came over me as we talked: Giuseppe was wildly crazy about Kay, who often fed, groomed, and cared for the animals. His countenance melted into a relaxed swoon when Kay began to stroke his neck and talk to him.
Giuseppe was afraid of ropes and loud noises, and he ‘showed’ me someone using him for lasso practice. It looked like they had learned the skill at his expense, hitting him with the heavy rope in the ears, eyes, snout, and neck before getting it right. I also felt that while he was being used for practice, he felt trapped and unable to get away. He appeared tethered to something in the middle of a ring as a young man rode around him on a horse.
“Having seen this picture, I’d expect him to be more sensitive to ropes around the head and neck area,” I told the two women. “I’ll tell him that will never happen here. He also wants to make sure you won’t leave him tied up and go away to do other chores or errands. It seems clear to me that he was left tied up for long periods of time, and he would like some assurances.”
Paige was happy for me to offers those assurances, and I relayed the message to the beautiful brown jack. At the time, I had no idea that using donkeys for lasso practice was so prevalent, but when I talked to Paige a few days later she told me all about it.
“Horse-riding ropers used Giuseppe to practice roping. They’re called either ‘headers’ or ‘heelers,’ which means they use the donkeys to practice roping cows, either their back feet or the head. Most of the donkeys used this way are crippled for life, especially if they’re laid down and stretched out. You can easily break the animal’s back,” she told me.
“Why don’t they just use cows?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. It would make a lot more sense,” she said.
Stressed out from being shuffled from place to place, Giuseppe also wanted some assurances that he would be staying put. He knew he was in a good place and wanted to know if he could actually settle in with this new herd. Paige, however, couldn’t offer those assurances.
“He belongs to a friend of mine, and I’m just taking care of him. She would give him to me if I asked her to because she travels and isn’t really able to pay much attention to him right now. I’m not sure where he’ll end up.”
Finally, Giuseppe wanted to know what happened to a young donkey, lighter in color, that he had grown attached to.
“That one followed Giuseppe everywhere and they were very close,” Kay told me.
“You can tell him he was only here to get weaned, and then he went back to his mother.”
That’s why he kept looking under my body for something. It was milk, Giuseppe told me with a guffaw.
Paige and Kay had a happy surprise for the love-sick Giuseppe, though. Most likely he was going to live with his human squeeze, Kay, in the very near future. Both women were confident his ownership would be relinquished to Kay. That boy was one infatuated donkey…infatuated with a sweet human who had loved and cared for him. I guessed he had a preference for blondes like Kay!