Donkey week. On the Jewish liturgical calendar, that is. We read the story of Balaam’s talking donkey. Yes, the one that knows the way better than her rider does. She’s more spiritually attuned. More awake. She sees more dimensions of reality.
Thus, she’s no different from other donkeys in the Torah. (Read about donkeys in the Bible HERE.)
So, in honour of biblical donkeys, I visited the Turtle Valley Donkey Refuge. I drove over with my new friend Florence. She is an eighty-something retired veterinarian. Also a retired pilot and flight instructor. And an active author of murder mystery novels. She recently started a habitat for humanity chapter in her small city. Florence grew up in a homesteading tent. Once, she tried to ride a mule. It threw her off, of course. But she continued to love horses, donkeys, and even mules.
I did the driving. So, naturally, we got lost. GPS doesn’t work in these mountains. (A donkey guide might have been helpful!) Finally, we arrived, just before feeding time. So, we had about 15 minutes to socialize with the donkeys. After that, they would lose interest in visitors and focus on dinner.
Still, we heard a brief introductory talk. Donkeys are native to Africa. They came to the Americas on Columbus’s supply ships in 1495. Columbus expected to find active gold mines. He would need donkeys to carry equipment, pull ore carts, and sire mules. Donkey’s hooves have excellent traction, so they can work on many kinds of ground.
Unfortunately, we know that Columbus found little gold. And did much killing of the Arawak people.
Still, donkeys became the North American “gold standard” of mining helpers. They served settlers through several gold rushes. Mules, offspring of a donkey and a mare, often worked in coal mines. Once a donkey or mule learns a task, said an 1884 newspaper article, it does it well. If an inexperienced driver makes a mistake, the animal will ignore the driver and do the job right. “To a mine mule, nothing is impossible,” the reporter wrote. Miners respected their working animals. So, older donkeys and mules would retire to a farm.
But, gradually, miners began to use steam engines to haul equipment and ore. Donkeys were no longer a good investment. So, some people simply abandoned their donkeys. Donkeys are good at finding water; other animals follow their lead. To keep cool, they coat themselves with dirt. But they need reliable rain shelters, as their hair doesn’t repel water. And they need companions. So, those who formed herds survived. Some of those wild herds are still around!
Today in North America, donkeys are popular rural pets. But donkeys live 35-50 years. So they often outlive their owner-companions. Hence, the donkey refuge movement was born.
Most of the donkeys we met were seniors. They moved slowly. But they all wandered up to the fence to meet us. They came in twos and threes, small groups of close friends. Some were white; others brown or grey. Tall and leggy, or short and squat. With long or short hair. Most invited us to stroke their faces. No, they did not expect us to offer a snack; they just wanted to say hello.
But some of the oldest donkeys were impatient with the staff. One brayed loudly. “Where’s my dinner?” Soon her friends joined the call. We heard a symphony of shofar calls. Rams’ horns, primitive trumpets. Different pitches and rhythms weaving together. Eventually, the staff piled hay on the ground. The donkeys gathered in their twos and threes to share the piles.
The youngest and newest donkey, 3 years old, was in his own pen. “He came in full of himself,” said the guide. “Till one of the older donkeys gave him a good punch in the nose!” He presented that nose to me, so I stroked it. Then, he turned his long, thick neck. As a trusting golden retriever might, saying, “You did a good job patting my head. Now do the belly!” I relaxed. He wasn’t a stranger. Instead, he was a fellow mammal, full of thought and feeling. Equines communicate well through touch. So, with my hand on his body, we had a short conversation.
Really, he was no different from Balaam’s donkey. Decisive. Talkative. Friendly. Helpful. So, I’ll just assume he knows a lot that I don’t know. And, one day, I’ll come back and learn from him again.
Sources: Brochure, Turtle Valley Donkey Refuge. Michael W. Sprowles, “Mine Mules: Their Use in Coal Mines in the United States.” Photo credits: LDK (me); Wilhelm Hester, 1872-1947. Florence writes her mysteries under the pen names “Carolyn Dale” and “Anne Barton.”