The Land of 1,000 Donkeys: A Weekend at the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue Headquarters

I was in the second of two white vans that slowed to a gravel-crunching stop outside the visitor’s center at the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue’s headquarters in San Angelo, Texas. As the dust settled, I waited my turn to exit the van, crouched and clutching my satchel to my stomach. My heart pounded wildly in my chest as my boots hit the dry ground and the spicy scent of livestock surrounded me. Beneath the shining Texas sun beating down through a cloudless sky, I breathed in the dry, sandy air and followed the crowd away from the vans.

The group with whom I was travelling consisted of other managers and volunteers of Peaceful Valley’s satellite adoption centers around the country and members of the PVDR Board of Trustees. We had all come to San Angelo for the 2016 Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue Symposium and for me, I was meeting absolutely everyone (but for the owner of the whole operation, Mark Meyers) for the very first time.

For the vast majority of us, this was our first visit to San Angelo’s headquarters and even if I hadn’t already discussed this with the others, I’d have guessed by the way they stood in awe like I did upon arrival. Literally, as far as one could see, were pens of hundreds of donkeys. From every direction, brays of varying pitches and depths echoed—the songs of the saved. After several minutes of dropped jaws and goofy grins, we (the crowd) shuffled into the visitors center to begin the business of the symposium. It would be a busy weekend with brainstorming, discussions, hands-on demonstrations, Q&As, labs and team-building all in an effort and in the spirit of bettering lives for donkeys.

If you’ve been following my blog at all, then you’re well aware that my heart beats for donkeys and that it’s because of donkeys that my life is far better than I could have imagined. They’ve grounded me in a unique way…unknowingly showing me that it’s okay to be an anxious and protective creature because for many, that’s what it means to self-preserve. They’ve taught me the importance of trust and how to be strong and that no matter what, you keep going.

As I sat in a fold-out chair in the back row watching Mark Meyers talk about the organization that him and his wife, Amy, built, I realized that I was among people that understood all of these things about donkeys—so much so that they work tirelessly and devote their lives to the welfare of these amazing and overwhelmingly forgotten creatures. I was surrounded by people that don’t have to ask the question, “why donkeys?” but instead ask, “why the hell NOT donkeys?” They are a species that are unmatched in intelligence, strength, complexity and grace and they need a voice, too.

That voice came together this weekend and I had the honor and privilege to be a part of it.

I travelled alone to this conference which was probably a good idea because by the time I made it back to my hotel room after our first day at the San Angelo ranch, I spent a good amount of time letting tears stream down my face as I tried to fall asleep. They were tears for the hundreds of faces I saw at the ranch that had been through so much: hooves that were grown out so far that the donkey would never comfortably walk again, blinded and injured donkeys, scared and formerly abused donkeys. But they were also tears of joy that at least now, those donkeys were safe. They were tears of appreciation for how much these people I’d met have given and will continue to give just so these donkeys have a chance. They were tears of gratitude for the good that still exists in the world and the pure bad-assery that I…nervous, awkward, what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life Jess…gets to be a part of it.

Besides the invaluable education I received through our hands on workshops, the friendships I made over drinks and good food, and the hundreds of donkeys that I got to put my hands on and look into the eyes of, I was also assured of something this weekend that I didn’t expect: that this…aiding in donkey rescue even the tiny bit that I can…is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. No doubt. I know this because as Mark Meyers spoke to all of us at the Board of Trustees meeting on Saturday night, he read from his gavel the quote, “Know who you serve.” For the first time in a long time, I’m certain of that. Stars aligning, blue moon gazing, ladybug landing certain.  

On Sunday, after picking at donkey’s hooves, trying my hand at clicker training, learning about wound care, sliding my hands into a donkeys mouth who was having dental work done, and picking up some great tools for transporting donkeys, I said my goodbyes and headed home. I imagined my own donkeys and wondered what kinds of memories stirred behind their deep, brown eyes. I wondered if when I got home, they’d smell the other donkeys on me in the same way dogs do. I wondered if they’d missed me as much as I missed them. I couldn’t wait to get there to find out.

Below are two slideshows of various photos from the weekend. For more information on how you can help, please visit www.donkeyrescue.org.

And to all the staff, volunteers, and supporters of PVDR—I freakin’ love all of you. Like, a lot.

Rolling Rocks and Hungry Donkeys: A Morning Ritual

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!” – Dr. Seuss

It was a golden morning—the kind where the sun sparkles in a million, broken pieces off the dew droplets covering absolutely everything. The cool air moved although it was hard to tell which direction and on the back of our property, the neighborhood roaming pack of guinea hens chattered in what sounded like a symphony of tiny kazoos. I held a mug of slightly steaming coffee in both hands, feeling its warmth against my palms and breathing in its fresh, donut shop smell.

In the pasture, the donkeys stepped slowly across the grass, grazing on the wet blades and softly flicking their tails when Bunny noticed me and raised her head. With her ears standing straight, she began to breathe heavily, widening her nostrils, which brought the attention of my presence to the other three donkeys, Tyrion, Simon and Beans. Starting with Bunny, they all began to bray as four sets of slightly damp hooves trotted my way.

Soon, I’d be replenishing the hay to their feeders and taking some time to pet and inspect each of them. I have this unrelenting fear that during the night, somehow, one of the donkeys will hurt themselves, so I ensure every morning that my fear is only that: a fear.  It’s a fear among many other unlikely fears such as the fear of my house burning down from my having left the stove top on, King Ranch being abducted by disgruntled workers who send a ransom note written with newspaper cutouts demanding $500,000,000 for his return OR ELSE, and Little Foot running away when he’s a teenager to join some international gang of assassins where of course he’ll change his whole identity and I’ll never see him again except for in my dreams.  I worry about diphtheria, brown recluses, real life witches that blend in with society, ghosts and spirits of the disturbed and angry kind and worlds of tiny people that might actually be living in the grass that I violently destroy with the mower. I just do.

Before going into the pasture, I used the back of my left hand to dust away dirt, chicken feathers, and leaves from the back patio table and then placed my coffee in the clearing as I sat down in a damp patio chair. I’d realized recently that not only was I an anxious person, but that I was anxious about the fact that I was anxious and I spend a lot of time worrying about how much I worried about things. Since realizing this, I’ve dedicated my early mornings to depriving the beast of food…or in other words, depriving my worry of more worry.

My deprivation tool is this:

My mind is a mountain full of rocks. When I have a thought, a boulder pops out of the top of the mountain and begins to roll down the very well-defined groove that almost every single boulder in my life has rolled down—what I refer to as the “Trench of Terror” (my anxiety). It’s slick, lined with skeletal remains, giant spiders, fire, and slimy, green ghouls and no one has yet to discover where it ends. Nothing has ever come back from the foggy mist in which the trench disappears although sometimes, there are faint cries and moans signaling that death isn’t at the bottom of it—just horror. Never ending, perpetual horror.

Now, however, in my attempted deprivation of enabling this behaviour, my consciousness (who oddly enough, I imagine as a small stick figure without a face and with small circles for hands and feet) stands just outside the thought hole and when a boulder of thought pops out, my stick figure consciousness pushes it the other direction….away from the dark and howling Trench of Terror and down the very unstable yet growing groove that I call “Reasonable River.” It’s bright on that side of the mountain with trees, birds, chalkboards with equations, and shelves of how-to books. Reasonable River is still a rocky route, but I can see the bottom of it: a blue lagoon with actual mermaids who take care of the smaller sea creatures and sing celtic folk music. There’s always a rainbow and the sun over there has a sweet, smiling face. I think there’s wine down there too but not so much that one would black-out. Just enough to take the edge off.

So…a thought pops up and heads towards Trench of Terror at an alarming speed. The green ghouls begin to laugh in anticipation and the fires rage but then consciousness catches it, pushes it back up the mountain and over to Reasonable River where it rolls down in a sensical and thoughtful way. Reason guides it all the way down into the warm waters of the lagoon where it stays happy and healthy and dealt with.

I watch the donkeys as I push myself through this exercise for two reasons: 1) watching donkeys grazing is peaceful and 2) I personally believe that most donkeys struggle with anxiety and I hope that in some universal, cosmic way, if I visualize vividly enough (my stick figure consciousnesses fighting with my thought rocks), that the donkeys may actually catch some of that scene in their satellites and feel just a little more at peace within their own minds. I have always had this feeling that animals communicate in mental wavelengths—like watching TV and the more real the thoughts are to us, the clearer the image they receive. Maybe? I don’t know. But I like to think that’s how it is. I make eye contact with every animal I can and I imagine beautiful things like embraces and laughs and sprinkled cake hoping that somehow, they’ll see those images, too.

Of course, I think being on an actual mountain pushing actual boulders around would be the far easier exercise because the number of flying boulders on that slippery mountain surface are a lot for that little stick person to handle. Rolling rocks still tumble down the Trench of Terror, but stick person does a good job of catching some of them and sending them the other way towards reason. Over time, Reasonable River will be defined too and perhaps it won’t be such a challenge.

I reached the bottom of my coffee mug which signals the end of my exercise. The dew had begun to evaporate making the yard far, less sparkly and far more humid. Over the fence, all four donkeys watched me expectantly, so with my rubber boots on, I walked towards the shed that holds their hay. Once more, the donkeys brayed although they were brays of excitement. Breakfast time.

I supposed I was hungry, too.

Morning ritual