There's nothing I fear more on the farm than an ice storm. Water valves and gates freeze; pathways become unwalkable; it's almost impossible to move hay, firewood, or vehicles. The animals can get trapped, slip and fall, suffer broken legs or fractured hooves. I can fall, too.
A few weeks ago brought one of the worst ice storms in my memory. After weeks of sub-zero low temperatures, the temperature had suddenly risen into the low 40s, causing melting ice to cascade over the pastures and driveways and refreeze at sundown. So, when this storm hit, it swiftly covered everything in a sheen of slippery wet ice. Driving home in the sleet on narrow country roads, I lost control of my truck twice but managed to pull back onto the road.
When I pulled up behind the farmhouse, I heard a sound that made my heart thump. Lulu was calling me. Lulu is my girl. I never knew a donkey until I moved to rural New York four years ago, but Lulu and I have one of those human-animal things. We just connect. When I get up in the morning, Lulu can somehow sense it from 200 feet away and brays a morning greeting. When I come into the pasture and sit on the grass, Lulu puts her head on my shoulder; I scratch her nose, and we ponder matters together. She has vast, soulful brown eyes and an intuitive, affectionate nature. When I'm sad, Lulu can comfort me. (Here's a piece I wrote last year about why I own donkeys.)
Donkeys are not like dogs; they don't respond to commands. They will do what you want—amble into the barn so a farrier can check their hooves, for instance—but in their own time. You have to make them think it's their own idea. Carrots help.
Lulu's braying alarmed me. I dropped the bag I was carrying, turned on the truck's headlights to illuminate the barnyard, and opened the back door of the house to let out Rose, my border collie and herding associate. Then I hustled—slid, mostly—toward the pasture gate. In general, I don't believe that animals talk to people, but that night I was sure Lulu was telling me she needed help. She was talking to me. I was sure of it, and it was eerie.
When I got close, I saw Lulu on the icy ground, her front legs bent under her and her rear legs splayed. A second donkey, Fanny, was standing nearby, at an awkward angle, seemingly reluctant to move. The other two donkeys, Jeannette and her son Jesus, were on their knees, a little to the left. The sleet and rain on the frigid ground had created a half-inch veneer of ice, and my donkeys, normally sure-footed, simply could not get up. I slid the final 10 feet on my butt, myself, rather than risk walking on that rink.
I couldn't open the pasture gate, which was encased in ice, so I whacked at the latch with a rock until it slid back and the gate popped open. Then, clinging to the fence posts, I crawled over to Lulu. "It's OK, girl," I told her. "We'll help you." I love my farm, but there are moments when I experience the extraordinary power of loneliness and an almost crushing sense of responsibility. The truth is, there is no one to call when a donkey falls on a night like this. The police won't be interested. The vets are hours away, and what could they do anyway? I have wonderful friends and good neighbors who often come running, but part of friendship is knowing when not to call. You can't ask people to drive on black ice on a night when you can barely walk across your own driveway.
Lulu and I—and Rose—were in this together.
First, I tried yelling and waving my arms: "Get up, girls, let's go." Not useful: Lulu got up onto her knees but couldn't get any purchase with her rear legs. Fanny took a step, then slipped and dropped to one knee. I worried about pushing the donkeys too hard. They could easily break a leg.
I took Lulu's head in my hands, kissed her on the nose, then tried to maneuver beneath her and press up on her shoulders. But she was too heavy for me to raise to her feet. Besides, with my back troubles, I could be endangering my own mobility.
The donkeys are the gentlest of my animals. Many creatures in this situation would have already been panicky and unwittingly dangerous, but the Gang of Four was calm. They simply asked me, softly, to please do something.