When I got my troubled border collie Orson, we started learning to herd at a sheep farm in Pennsylvania. A lonely old donkey named Carol lived in the adjacent pasture. We bonded; I was enchanted by her soulful eyes and gentle bray, and she loved the apples I brought her and the pats and scratches that accompanied them. When I bought this farm in upstate New York, I imported some of the sheep we'd been herding with. They arrived on a livestock trailer, and Carol showed up with them, a surprise gift from the farmer, who thought she deserved a better life.
Donkey No. 2 joined her when I got a phone call from a woman who described herself as a "Jewish donkey spiritualist," a term I hadn't heard before and don't expect to hear again. Pat bred donkeys and had studied and written about their symbolic significance, their place in the ancient world, and their profoundly spiritual natures.
Both Jewish and Christian theologies are filled with biblical and other references to donkeys, she pointed out. Carol, like all my donkeys, wore a cross on her back, a pattern of dark hair behind the shoulders.
Pat declared that, since donkeys are social sorts, Carol was lonely. She was not aware of her "donkeyness"; having lived with sheep all of her life, she probably didn't even know she was a donkey. She needed a companion, Pat said. My wife, already embittered (Carol ran up enormous vet bills that first winter), said she could live with Carol being out of touch with her donkeyness. I couldn't, so soon little Fanny arrived, and then Lulu, her half-sister.
Pat was right about donkeys: They are sweet, powerfully spiritual creatures. Mine have an ostensible purpose: They're my security detail, fiercely protective of my flock of sheep. They run off stray dogs and coyotes. Since I've lost no sheep to these common predators, the donkeys seem to do their jobs well.
But they also—and this is why I have more donkeys than I truly need—attach to people. They nuzzle and lean into humans they like, which can sometimes be disconcerting, but is also touching. They are gentle with children, calm around strangers. They coexist reasonably amiably with my dogs and chickens. My ferocious rodent-massacring barn cat, Mother, sleeps near them often, and last week I came into the barn and saw her curled up next to the baby, both of them dozing comfortably on a pile of straw bedding.
When I come out of the house in the morning, all three girls are waiting at the barnyard gate, wheezily braying for their cookies. Serious about snacks, they're likely to nose into your pockets if you're slow to produce them.
But our connection goes beyond food, I think. Almost every day, I sit on a tree stump in the pasture, and one donkey or another—sometimes all three—comes over to nuzzle with me, putting a big furry head on my shoulder or the top of my head. During winter storms, I trudge up to the pole barn and comb ice from their long eye lashes and brush the snow off their coats. They hold still, then nuzzle me in appreciation.
When Carol was sick, I brought a boom box into the barn and we sat listening to Van Morrison sing "Brown-Eyed Girl." She also loved Willie Nelson and Ray Charles.
Early last winter, Carol again foundered. The vet didn't think she'd make it through another season of sickness and brutal cold; we agreed that a lethal injection would, at some point, be merciful. Carol died within a couple of days.
A few months later, donkey spiritualist Pat sold her farm. Before she moved away, she sold me Jeanette, one of her oldest donkeys (they live to be 30, even 40). Nobody said anything about anybody being pregnant. But Jeannette was, apparently. So, now there are four. "That's a lot of hay," one of my incredulous farmer neighbors observed. "Especially for animals that don't do anything."