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.
Rose had started walking toward the sheep, her usual charges, but I told her to lie down and wait. I could see that Lulu's knees were already scraped and starting to swell. What if, in their fear, the donkeys hurt themselves or one another? I couldn't leave them out here all night, struggling in the frozen muck.
"Rose," I said. "Get 'em up. Get 'em up." It was a command we sometimes used to dig the sheep out of fence corners or other awkward spots. When Rose heard it, she would move behind the sheep and nip at their tails and behinds to get the flock moving. It was a tricky call. If Rose went at her too aggressively, Lulu might flail, fall hard, injure herself. But there seemed no better choice. The ice would just get worse as the temperature dropped.
"Get 'em up!" I said again, gesturing toward the donkeys. Rose looked at me strangely, tense and alert, trying to make sense of the command in this odd setting. I'm well aware that dogs don't think in human terms, but sometimes Rose does look at me as if I were dancing naked in the snow. She cocks her head and studies me, intent on figuring out what the strange human wants now.
Normally, I don't encourage her to approach the donkeys. She and Lulu have an uneasy relationship (Lulu kicked her once, and since then Rose hasn't been above a quick nip at Lulu's butt when she thinks I'm not looking). But I've come to think of Rose as the all-purpose antidote to virtually any animal transport problem.
She got it, as she invariably does, and crept quietly behind Lulu, nipping at her tail. Lulu suddenly popped to her feet, along with Fanny. Then I pointed to Jesus and Jeannette, and Rose was happy to repeat the exercise. The ground was so slippery that the donkeys were reluctant to move; even Rose nearly skated into the side of the barn. But I half-crawled to the barn's big sliding door and opened it. Slowly, in small steps, they made their way inside. I told Rose to lie down in the doorway so the donkeys wouldn't bolt back out, but it turned out they were quite happy to be in stalls with straw bedding, usually reserved for emergencies or vets' visits, that brought shelter from the wind and sleet.
I wiped them down and put antibiotic salve and gauze bandages on Lulu's and Jeannette's bloodied knees. Jesus and Fanny seemed all right. I gave everyone some grain, fresh hay, a bucket of water. Lulu showed appreciation in her usual way, by leaning against me as I scratched her ears and neck. I brushed the ice from her head and flanks. I think we were both relieved. Fanny lay down on the straw and sighed.
Donkeys live in the moment, though. As I closed the door, I heard them munching happily on hay, safe from the intensifying storm, no longer in need of human attention. I thanked Rose profusely and began the long, laborious trek back to the house. I would be happy to find a wood stove, a heating pad, and a glass of Scotch myself.