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.