A LOVE LETTER TO GUS—the best donkey in the whole wide world
I was the reluctant one—I do not like to admit that to you. I thought: bring another adopted soul into our little family of beautiful mis-fit rescues? Now? Everything is working “as-is”…there is a process, there is order and we know what to expect. For me, it was the bubble-gum analogy (those are the little-human version of treats)... back in my youth we had gum-ball machines at the grocery store. Imagine trying to add a single gum-ball to that already full machine…all the other gum-balls have to rearrange to make room for the newbie. Well, adding to our already full life…there was gonna be some rearranging. But, it had also been Tim’s dream to have a special donkey join our little tribe. Somehow, as Tim’s corporate garb slowly unraveled he awakened a love—some might call it an obsession—with your nation. Eventually my reluctance turned to cautious optimism as we applied to every donkey rescue we could find. Come to find out, adopting 2 bonded mini-donkeys (that’s what we originally thought we wanted) is like winning the lottery…rare. We were on wait lists for years.
And, then the call came in from one of the rescues. While they didn’t have any mini-donkeys, they did have donkeys that fit our other criteria: older and/or special needs. So we agreed to proceed and within a few months they identified a donkey that was a good fit…you! Due to winter approaching we decided to hold off until spring for your arrival. It gave us plenty of time to work on all the projects we wanted to complete before you arrived to make your life with us as wonderful as possible. We had a new shelter built, added a second dry-lot, fixed up the third stall complete with a new hay bin and metal gate so you could look out into the barn, all perfect for your size. We immersed ourselves into learning everything possible and all the best practices about donkeys and your care.
Knowing you were coming in the spring made the long dark days of winter, with lots of heavy snow, much more tolerable. And yet, seeing your face in a picture for the first time made our hearts immediately melt. Looking into your big soulful eyes, I knew that your name was Angus. Even though you had at least two prior names, “Gus” was going to be your name amongst our little family.
And then, on a beautiful spring day, you hopped off the trailer and walked right into our hearts, as though you were always meant to be here. We were so excited and so nervous at the same time. We had a lot to learn, and fast. We didn’t know your kind, the donkey nation, the way we knew the horse nation. The two most important things for us initially were: 1) to focus on getting you good nutrition and 2) help you learn to trust us. Luckily for us, you were very motivated by food so getting you good nutrition through the right forage and supplements was easy. The trust part, however, took some time.
We made you a promise that we would ask nothing of you for the first month. We wanted to demonstrate to you that we were calm and gentle and steady in all of our interactions…that you could trust how we responded to life on our little ranch. Tim loved hanging out in your paddock with you during those early days. He relished being able to sit out there and watch you explore your new home. We quietly hoped and prayed you would show interest in us as we mucked your paddock or filled hay-bags. The first time we scratched your secret itchy spot and then you asked for more, we knew we had made progress. Maybe you didn’t trust us yet, but you at least trusted us to scratch your itchy spots!
We felt like we won the lottery when you became comfortable, thanks to clicker training (+R), wearing a fly-mask and walking with us so sweetly on the lead. And yet, you had a rule that clicker training could not extinguish. It was only one rule, but it was a biggie: no touching the tummy, the legs, the feet or the ears. When we eventually came to understand the power of that rule, it was a game changer for us as your guardians. As the weeks progressed we could see a wound on your leg not healing and the regular farrier visits not amounting to any progress in developing trust. We quietly worried about how we could resolve this conflict. How do we care for you in all the ways we humans believe is important while allowing you to maintain a very strict no touch rule? No matter how we tried to care for you, fly spray or fly ointment or wound care or hoof cleaning, or acupressure, or T-touch, etc. you would have none of it. You tried to tell us quietly at first… initially saying “no” by walking away, then with a kick and if we were dumb enough try a third time a bite would ensue. We weren’t trying to disrespect you by ignoring your rules, we just felt that caring for your health and your feet were more important in the long term.
During all of this time learning about each other, you were also learning to be part of a little herd with Copper and Romeo. Romeo benefited the most because he now had the play-mate he always longed for; someone who would run around the paddock with him (especially when he chased you). Your bond with Romeo grew by leaps and bounds during Copper’s long stall-rest. Seeing you and Romeo grooming each other the first time brought tears to my eyes. When you would come in at night with Romeo goobers all over your back I knew that you both were happy. You were happy to get all the scratching he could provide and he was happy to finally have a friend who wanted all of his scratching skills. It was a match made in heaven.
But we still had these little issues of a wound that needed care and feet that needed trimming. After a progression of consults with and recommendations by many professionals we ended up at our last resort…having the vet come out to sedate you so that your wound could be cleaned and tended to; and, if time allowed, some initial hoof care. Well we all know how that turned out…and the trauma of that day will forever fill me with regret. Two good things came out of that day: you still loved us just the same as the day before and we saw you for who you truly were, not for who we wanted you to be. We later spoke with a vet who specializes in donkeys and he said that “not every donkey wants that life,” some donkeys need the freedom of the wild.
I believe in giving the animals I work with choice…always. Horses and donkeys and dogs and cats, deer, cows, coyotes, etc. are all sentient beings…yes! And they also deserve to have agency over their lives…to be sovereign. Unfortunately, our little ranch was not set up nor did it have the space to be able to offer you the freedom you so desired and needed.
Yes, I feel like a failure. I’m supposed to fix what is broken, heal what is injured and return the body/mind back to harmony. And yet, you are not broken…there is nothing about you to fix. Your sense of harmony was somewhere else; we took you from that and were unable to honor what you needed. So the greatest gift we could give you was to return you to the rescue where you could live at the sanctuary, be free (and in the eyes of humans: wild) and at home.
“Gusie, Gusie, Gusie…who is the best donkey in the whole wide world? You are!” I’m so glad I got to tell you that one more time as you climbed in the trailer to return home. We are all broken-hearted that we could not make this your true, forever home. Tim and I quietly cry every night as we rest our heads on our pillows knowing we won’t see you the next morning. I cry every morning going into the barn to feed because you won’t be there to greet me with your sweet eyes, soft ears and scratchy bray. During the heat of the day, I often find Romeo staring off into the distance…looking for you... as though you might be down in the lower pasture grazing on sweet grass without him. Our hearts are all broken…broken open so wide that only you could fill the crack.
Your departure has shifted our very foundation…the ground we walk on feels different, the space around us has an emptiness and our sense of purpose is a bit adrift. It is again, like the gum-ball machine…when a gum-ball is taken out all the others have to shift. All of us are having to adjust to your absence and we don't like it.
Yet, we know you are happy and having fun with some new friends you met on your long journey home. So knowing that is the only way, over time, our hearts will heal. We will eventually be able to clean out your stall and perhaps some day make space for another (or two) of your kind to be welcomed here with open arms and very big hearts, thanks to you and the lessons we learned.
Thank you, Gus, you are the best donkey in the whole wide world.
And, you will always be our missing gum-ball…
We love you so,
Sam, Tim, Romeo, Copper, Elmer, Felix, Koda and Darcy