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

Donkey Mind

In the lush shade of one of the pecan trees out in the pasture, I ran a circular brush along Bunny’s spine and down her sides as she blinked heavily—her long lashes moving in slow motion over her glossy and flickering brown eyes. Sprinkles of shedding, gray hair tumbled around in the almost non-existent breeze before either disappearing into the brightness of the day or landing on my boots and jeans. Donkey dust.

On this morning, Autumn teased us with tiny hints of itself in the breeze—it carried a ripeness in the wind that smelled like someone had just sliced a ripe, honey crisp apple and the trees were mostly still except when the leaves took turns twinkling as that fresh-apple air tickled them. Everything was in full, green bloom and seemingly asking for a trim and a change from that first bitter cold that’s hopefully not too far away.

With my hand on her back, I circled behind Bunny to continue brushing her other side. I read somewhere long ago (when I first took up an interest in donkeys) that brushing donkeys is a way to bond with them and I agree with that theory. The donkeys love when I’ve got the brush and sometimes, like this moment, they seem to fall into a trance with their ears lowered and eyes drifting. It’s therapeutic for me, too: line after line of combing and watching the stray hairs fall. I wondered what Bunny thought about as I brushed her. Not just about what she thought about the brushing, but what kinds of things regularly go through her mind? When she spaces out, I wonder what she imagines? What is created in a donkey mind?

I tucked the brush into the back pocket of my blue jeans as I knelt down in front of Bunny’s face. Her eyes widened, meeting mine and in them, I could see the silhouette of me and my cowboy hat and the brightness of all the blue and clouds behind me. She lowered her large head and rested her snout in my lap as I scratched the insides of her ears.

With my forehead against hers and now my own eyes closed, I focused on the way the air touched my skin. It was a perfect temperature—not cold or hot but Goldilocks perfection—and in that absolute comfort, my skin prickled. Goosebumps covered my entire body and I began to feel like I must have been glowing a bright, honey gold.

It radiated—that place where my skin met the most perfect air and it started to shine so brightly that it could no longer be contained in my own skin and in seconds, it’s warmth exploded outward like the birth of a brand new universe. Elements of all kinds scattered and shimmered and suddenly, the whole world was a radiating, healing gold.

The light touched my family and my friends and it healed them of all their pain—physical or otherwise. It touched those people who have helped and assisted me. It touched those people who really, I don’t have much of an opinion of at all and it even touched the difficult and hurtful ones, too, stripping them of hate and hopelessness. It touched all animals and all plants and all the rocks on the beach and in the center of it all was Bunny and me. My best friend. The creature responsible for such a big chunk of joy in my world.

The light circled Bunny and seeped into her heart and her mind and with it, an assurance that she would never, ever be abandoned again. I poured all my alabaster gratitude into her through my hands and imagined wrapping my arms around her entire being which is far larger than the donkey shell in which it’s contained.

I am so grateful for my friendship with Bunny the donkey. Her and I share a world beyond words; beyond human expression. My dear Bunny, where would I be without you?

The pulsing, warm gold covered absolutely everything—the whole world and all of it’s contents floated above the ground. Waterfalls ran up cliffs. Flowers bloomed at lightning speed. Wolves howled and the sky began to sing in an angelic chorus that vibrated the entire history of mankind.

I opened my eyes and leaned back as she lifted her head and snorted. The air around us was still and silent but for that flickering, fall breeze that drifted by. I made eye contact with her once more—my silhouette and a bright, golden sky peering back at me.

I stood up, knees popping, pulling the brush from my back pocket and adjusting my hat. From behind me, Tyrion nudged my legs and so I placed a hand on his back and started to run the brush along his sides. I wondered what he must imagine when he’s spacing out, too? Who could ever really know?

Donkey dust

Farewells, Feelings, News Crews and Two Remaining Donkeys

A tan, rattling horse trailer bumped down the road away from my house kicking gravel and dust as its rusty doors creaked and clanged in a travelling, metallic melody which is quite common in these rural areas. Inside those doors, which likely still dripped with the sweat from my hands, two sets of furry ears stood straight up and wobbled side to side: Ethel and Charlie (two more of my foster donkeys) were going home. They were going to their forever home.

The choppy waters of my insides were churning like a pot of stew—boiling bubbles popped and spat in a scene which was familiar—it having only been 10 days since Ali the donkey had been adopted by a couple from central Texas. The feeling was complex: it stretched as far as grief and heartache could before likely causing serious damage—like a stressed rubber band which, had I not let go into gratitude, would have snapped and slapped my innards which were already raw from having said goodbye once and now two and three times.

After the trailer attached to the truck turned off of our road and its rustic, tambourine encore faded away, I tipped up my hat and ran my forearm across the lines of sweat collecting in my brows. Grief was swelling in my throat: that tingly feeling that warms the insides of your cheeks (like the moment before you bite into something that you know will be sour) was causing me to salivate. Perhaps that’s where tears actually start…in the throat.

I gulped it all down: that damp, pin-prick feeling that had started to fizz into the backs of my eyes because I could not yet touch the grief. Not yet. Behind me, leaning on the open gate, was a journalist and photographer from the local news who had come to my house on that same morning to do a story on our donkey adoption facility and we had an interview to finish.

With the exception of many job interviews and once by a woman who runs a podcast which features motivational folks, I’ve not been interviewed and certainly not by any news crews. In hindsight, I honestly cannot tell you if I did well or not but I get the feeling I was difficult to follow in my answers. I stumbled and stuttered nervously because the news is exposure and exposure is the most crippling of conditions for those who have struggled helplessly  throughout their whole lives with anxiety. I almost declined the opportunity because the violent whirlpool of ‘what-ifs’ from the initial media query that popped into my inbox weeks ago was enough to suffocate me.

But then I thought of the donkeys. They could use the publicity. They could use a special interest story because if even one person who reads this soon-to-run story takes up an interest in the well-being of donkeys, then it would be a success.

Donkeys have an odd mixture of a reputation: stubborn, stupid, worthless, to start. It’s why they’re left behind and discarded at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. It’s why they’re roped for sport and tied to trees and whipped and overworked. People don’t take the time to understand the force to be reckoned with that is the donkey: a highly intelligent, loyal, deeply emotional and complex creature that is unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom…at least to me. When cared for, they’re affectionate and protective and loving almost to a fault.

So I agreed to do the story…heels in the sand and all, I agreed.

The journalist and the photographer assigned to this story handled the whole experience with the most tender of care and for that, I hope they know how grateful I am. They were kind and patient and truly interested in the welfare of donkeys. I suspect my donkeys felt that, too, as they put on a beautiful show of their own: braying and nudging and even trying to play. They will make for a great story, no doubt.

Once everyone left my house and the dust settled from the last leaving car, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and pulled a lawn chair into the pasture where my two remaining fosters paced curiously. They were clearly confused and concerned with heavy exhales and fast steps so as I sipped, I started to hum a nameless tune and after some time, both donkeys eventually positioned themselves in front of me. I scratched their noses, continued to hum and finally allowed the huge, webby, conglomerate of emotions that had been tumbling inside me like a heavy load of clothes in the dryer to pierce the surface of my control…and I cried. I hummed and I cried and hummed and cried in what felt like bursting levies until there was nothing left but a wobbly tone vibrating under my tongue.

It occurs to me now that this donkey fostering and adoption process is a metaphor for life: that we’re blessed with different opportunities every day and it’s up to us to seize them whether they’re temporary or not. It’s up to us to do good things and difficult things and to love so hard if it means making this world for someone…even a donkey…a better place. And then one day, this whole life will be over. Everything is temporary…so alarmingly temporary. But temporary doesn’t mean ‘not worth it.’ No, quite the opposite. Temporary means a more compact and intense time to pour your whole self into something good.

I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have these two remaining foster donkeys and as I sat there in that lawn chair, I studied their eyes knowing that one day, probably soon, I’ll be saying goodbye to them, too. Before going in, I replenished their hay and gave them each one more pat on the rump. They ignored the hay and followed me to the gate and watched me walk inside…ears on high alert.

Ethel and Charlie have gone to the best home with one of the loveliest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I know that for them, good things are finally ahead and for my remaining two, I hope to say the same one day.

And when this news story runs in a few weeks, I hope that others will begin to see donkeys in a better way. Maybe more people will pause and reflect on how they’ve treated animals they’ve encountered. Maybe those which would normally ignore the problem or even contribute to it will stop and realize that really, they want to help. I do believe that most people really do just want this world to be a better place and donkeys have made my life better. So. Who knows.

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.

Peace, Love and Donkeys

And Then There Were Four: Saying Goodbye to Ali the Foster Donkey

Sweat ran down my spine in slow, chilly lines as I stood in the driveway with one hand shading my eyes from the sun and the other waving goodbye to a man and woman from central Texas who pulled away carefully in their large, white pickup truck. Attached to the back of their truck was a black horse trailer and peering at me nervously and seemingly confused through the slits in the side was Ali—the first foster donkey who’s left my ranch to live out his life in his new, forever home.

Earlier that day, I spent some time in the pasture securing halters on all five of the donkeys that I had available for adoption. I brushed them and wondered who, if any of them, I’d be saying goodbye to today and equally felt excited at the prospect and dreaded it. I studied each of them closely trying to remember every detail of their faces. I watched the way Ethel, the 10 month old jennet, stomped her back foot when she got frustrated that the other boys took her place around the hay. I watched how Charlie, a two year old all-brown gelding, slowly blinked in what seemed like relaxation when I brushed him. Beans, the two-year old wild-caught burro, had just started becoming comfortable with me, allowing me to pet his nose and actually brush his back—unless I made any sudden movement, in which case he’d dart away. Simon, the eight-year old black and white gelding, has been quick to steal my attention since the five fosters originally arrived. One of his eyes is half black and half white—not the actual pupil, but the lids around it; half black and half white like a little yin-yang. I wonder sometimes if that’s what makes him so balanced. Then there was Ali: a 6-year old gelding and a mix of gray and white. His background prior to being rescued is unknown but whatever has happened to him, it’s caused him to be overly affectionate. He rests his head on yours and leans all his weight into you and when you rub his jaws, his large, black eyes close behind long, black lashes as he sways gently.

When the man and his wife showed up to meet our donkeys, I led them out into the pasture to spend some time with them. I kept my distance to allow the couple to interact and soon, it became clear that they had begun to latch onto Ali and in turn, Ali latched onto them: he pressed his nose into the man’s chest and nosed at his inner arms. The man grinned widely and wrapped himself around Ali, whispering things like “hey there” and “you’re a sweet one, huh?” into Ali’s ear. I tried to pretend it was sweat but really, tears had started to sting my eyes. The man and Ali were bonding…like really bonding. It was touching to see the sensitive side of this man that I’d only just met. Of course, it was just as touching to see Ali reciprocating.

It didn’t take any convincing. Soon, the central Texas couple were backing their trailer up to the gate as I attached a rope to Ali’s harness and began to lead him towards the edge of the property.

Ali walked proudly beside me—his ears up and steps confident. Having rained the previous day, we left a trail of side-by-side hoof marks and boot prints in the mud and as we approached the gate, Ali suddenly stopped and resisted. He saw the trailer, looked at me, looked at the man and his wife, then back at me and froze. Placing my hand between his ears I told him that it was going to be okay before I tried tugging on the rope and on his harness. “It’s okay, bud. You can do this, it’s okay,” I said, but if you know anything about donkeys it’s that when they’ve decided they aren’t going to move, there’s nothing that can really be done to move them. The man and his wife tried to help, but this only made Ali lean his weight more heavily into me.

“Ali, bud, it’s okay,” I said.

Still, he resisted. I tugged with literally all of my strength (and as I’m sitting here typing this now, I can feel the soreness in my arms and back from the struggle) but I may as well have been tugging at a skyscraper. He would not budge.

I decided we should take a break and I sat down on the edge of the trailer, wiping the sweat from my brow. My forearms had a layer of dust that stuck to the beaded sweat over my freckles and as I lifted my hand to pat Ali on the head, it shook uncontrollably. I think I was nervous. Ali leaned his head down and placed his nose in my lap, so I rubbed the base of his ears and told him that everything would be okay. I told him that I knew this was confusing and scary but that everything would be just fine. He buried his head deeper.

After a few moments, I got back up and with the help of the couple, we managed to get Ali into the trailer.

Ali is a decently sized donkey but as they pulled away, he looked very small in that trailer. His eyes were wide and his demeanor, nervous. I wiped my eyes as they left my view and told myself that he was going to be okay. The couple was lovely and had great plans in store for him. He was leaving us and he was going home.

I knew fostering donkeys would be difficult. I’ve knowingly and voluntarily signed myself and our property up to be a bridge from an often broken and painful past to a hopefully bright and loving future for donkeys in need. My space is only temporary before they find their happily ever after. I’m only here to help them get there.

Still, it’s difficult. It is an impossibility for me to become attached to the well-being, futures, and overall existence of these donkeys. I’ve brushed them and held their heads in close to my chest when our horrible neighbors were cracking fireworks in the middle of the night. I’ve sang to them and fed them and worried for their safety knowing that at any time, it will be their time to move on.

In a way, I’m reminded of the struggles that I have with being a new mom. I constantly worry about Little Foot being out in the world and about him growing up and moving on and not needing me to slice his grilled cheese sandwich or secure the velcro on his sandals. I’m heartbroken in anticipation of the day when he tells me to go away, but I also want (more than anything) for him to grow up and be a functioning member of society who is successful at what he chooses to do. I don’t know how to walk that line of protectiveness and letting go.

In his book, The View from the Cheap Seats, my very favorite author, Neil Gaiman, has a chapter (that was actually his acceptance speech for the 2009 Newbery Medal) where he talks about how if you as a parent do your job well, then when your children grow up, they won’t need you any more. They will go on and live their lives in their own futures and it’s true. Little Foot, if I do what I’m supposed to do, will grow up and not need me any longer. That is, sadly, the goal…although I can’t find peace in it. Not yet, at least. 

The same goes for these donkeys. During my time, they require my whole heart because really, there’s no other way to have a donkey. You can’t half-heartedly move into donkey ownership…or half-ass, if you will. They’re complex, deep, thoughtful creatures that know when their owners are genuine and well-intentioned and will react accordingly. They also know when their owners don’t care and sadly, that’s where many of them get stuck and/or abandoned. They are creatures that are emotionally affected by absolutely everything.

But wholeheartedly or not, I am only their bridge. Their vessel. Their portal to greener pastures and today, I had to say goodbye. Prepared or not, it was really hard.

I suppose that means I did my job right. I trust the couple who’s taken him and I know that he’ll be happy. I know this is right. As Neil Gaiman said, it is the “…fundamental, most comical tragedy of parenthood that if you do your job properly, if you as a parent raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore.”

I did my job and now, he is home.

Happy trails, sweet Ali.

Ali

 

So…Why Donkeys?

For the first time in almost two months, small, struggling raindrops splat onto the dirty windshield of my truck as I traveled down the long, dark, two-lane spur that leads back to my town. Momentarily, I forgot which lever controlled the windshield wipers (probably due to lack of use) so after fumbling with the blinker and then the washer fluid, I finally got the wipers going—their blades spreading dirty dampness in rainbow shapes across the windshield.

Welcome as the rain was to our roasted lawns, this particular night was poorly timed because on this night, the peak showing of the Perseid meteor shower was happening with the possibility of seeing an impressive seven to eight falling stars per minute. King Ranch and I had been anxiously awaiting the opportunity to post up in our backyard, lean back in lawn chairs with potent beverages, and see who could spot the most streaks in the sky. But alas, the insulation of thick, gray clouds fully blocked the potential for even a fluke sighting. Maybe we would just settle in on the couch, turn on an episode of Louis C.K.’s show, Louie, and still indulge ourselves with a drink or three.

I was driving home later than I’d originally planned from an evening staff meeting at the studio where I teach yoga. As a group, we (the staff) took individual DiSC assessments to determine our personality traits, strengths and weaknesses in an attempt to more effectively carry out our studio’s mission and to better understand one another in an effort to maintain harmony among all the employees. The results of my assessment were not too far off from my predictions which was a bit disappointing because I’d hoped to be surprised. It was revealed that I am, in fact, a C/S—one who is calm and avoids conflict and generally prefers to avoid too many social engagements. When faced with stress, “…Cs/Sc’s will over-analyze or withdraw, and may even stop talking altogether. Their generally calm and rational approach to their work—coupled with their non-assertive style—makes them appear detached, or potentially passive aggressive.” (Crystal Project 2016).

Chuckling uncomfortably to myself, I realized that of all the people in attendance at the meeting, I was surely the only one still travelling home because I lived the farthest distance away and by far from the studio: I’ve geographically separated myself from others.

I suppose I like it this way—being far. I like the ability to detach when I need to recharge. I like being around people for a short while and then retreating to the safety of my acreage and donkeys. However, loneliness does creep up on me from time to time…usually once Little Foot is napping, King Ranch is at work, and the donkeys are feeling particularly anti-social. It’s as if I haven’t struck the right balance between detachment and engagement with others. I’m easily overwhelmed by interaction, but start to crave it pretty quickly when it’s gone.

As I entered my town, there wasn’t enough rain falling to wash away the dirty trails that my windshield wipers left across the glass which made it difficult to see the road, so I ran my washer fluid a few times to clear the view. Those drops which had been falling were now reduced to a mist that scattered around in the beams of my headlights like small, aimlessly darting gnats.

I thought of these confirmed traits of mine: overly analytical, withdrawing, non-assertive etc, as I arrived outside of my property and was feeling rather vulnerable about it. I knew these things about me but now, everyone else did. Is that a bad thing though? By the time I pulled up, the rain was no more than a thick, floating humidity that fogged the car windows as well as the lenses in my glasses. As a yoga instructor, I speak so often about the importance of connection with one’s self as well as the connection to others, yet, as a human wandering around out there in the world, I usually feel quite disconnected from everything, myself included. Maybe it’s the overly analytical part of my mind, but I feel like I am in constant search for connection—even if it’s just a connection to understanding. Is it normal to feel like I just don’t get it? It meaning anything?

I pulled the glasses off my face to clear the lenses of fog as I stepped out of the truck to open the gate. As I did so, Bunny and Tee lifted their heads from grazing in the front paddock, watching me intently with their ears pointed up and their jaws still slowly chewing. They really do watch everything. With the gate open, I climbed back into the truck, released the brake, and squeaked up the gravel driveway as dots of dew danced around in the beam of the headlights.

After turning off the engine, I stepped out of the truck and noticed that Bunny had hung her head over the fence that lines our driveway, so despite the dampness, I walked to her and placed my hand between her eyes. She lifted her soft nose up and down and laid her ears back. C/Ss are (according to a DiSC Insights blog I found online here) stable and friendly. They don’t handle change very well, or at least not quickly. They’re sympathetic, avoid conflict, and they fear loss of security. They should be handled with care and will likely recoil if met with aggression, strong tones or body language, or pushy personalities. That assessment, I thought, really pinpointed me.

I ran my hand up and down Bunny’s snout as I considered all of this in thought patterns that resembled a complicated roller coaster—the images of my traits running up and down and ’round and ’round, faster than I could hardly keep up with when it hit me that oh my goodness, donkeys are C/S personalities too.

The roller coaster ride in my mind stopped abruptly and I stared into Bunny’s big, brown eyes. In my shift, she widened her eyes and her ears shot straight back up. Her tail flicked and Tee came trotting  over from across the dark, damp paddock.

Donkeys are kind, sympathetic, overly analytical, slow to adjust to change, reliant, dependable, and typically avoid conflicts. They need to be handled with extreme care, especially those who have been through a lot. They are loyal to a fault but will shut down if threatened. Oh my goodness. They’re just like me. Overthinking, anxious, kind, thoughtful, self-conscious, non-assertive, people pleaser ME.

I was suddenly very anxious in this discovery—as if somehow, I’d just discovered the glowing and priceless key that unlocks the secrets to the entire universe. I scrambled around the garage to the gate which leads into the pasture and there, Bunny and Tee met me with warm exhales and wide, welcoming eyes.

I dropped to a knee and placed a hand on each of their jaws, pulling their noses in close to my face. I’m sure they wondered what on Earth was happening but they didn’t resist or recoil. They didn’t resist because in typical C/S fashion, “they enjoy people, but prefer individuals and groups that they trust and feel comfortable around.” (DiSC Insight Blog 2016). They were being kind and patient. I laughed out loud as I realized this and from the back parts of the property, two of my foster donkeys brayed loudly, causing Bunny and Tee to reciprocate by calling back. I leapt to my feet and by now, the rain was no more than a heavy dampness—like a warm washcloth wrapped around absolutely everything. I ran as fast as I could in my saturated converse tennis shoes to the gate that separates the foster donkeys from my own and there they all were waiting, ears pointed up towards the gray sky.

They all watched me wide-eyed and I know why: they felt my excitement and my vulnerability from feeling so seen because donkeys feel what those around them are feeling. They’re natural care-givers and highly intuitive. After patting Bunny and Tee on the nose (assuring them that they still are and will always be my favorite), I unlocked the gate to the paddock with the fosters and latched it behind me as all five of them circled around me. I could have sworn that they smiled—at least it felt like it. I know I was. Like a big dummy, I smiled.

I’d never felt so seen. I’d never felt so understood. I’d figured out the answer to that confusing and complex question that I’ve been asked by so many and in so many different ways and have never properly known how to answer…that question: “Why donkeys?”

Why donkeys? Why? I know now.

Because they get me…and I get them.

Why donkeys? We see the world and react to it in the very same way. Their thoughtfulness, sensitivity, need for space yet need for engagement, overly-analytical minds: I get it now.

Why donkeys? Because we are the very same.

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Midnight Meditations and Donkey Songs

It’s just after 11:00 PM on a Sunday night during the first week in August and someone is shooting off fireworks down the road. They’re not setting off little snappy, poppy, crackly fireworks that flicker across the ground like big crickets. No. They’re setting off commercial-grade, booming, colorfully raining down fireworks that rattle the windows of every home and the bones of everyone in them. What the 4-letter word. Seriously. What the 4-letter word?!

Because of this display of exploding inconsideration by folks who I am noting to dislike from here on out, I’m out in the pasture, desperately trying to comfort not only my two donkeys, Bunny and Tyrion, but also my group of newly arrived fosters. Every flash, crack and boom startles the donkeys whose ears point up, eyes widen, and hooves scatter. They are terrified and I am furious with whoever has decided that this is an appropriate time to celebrate whatever this first week in August has brought them.

Like most animals and myself, donkeys are not fans of recreational explosives that are both obnoxiously loud and highly dangerous. Like operating an airplane, I personally feel that fireworks should be left to the professionals and be left to nationally recognized holidays in which most folks don’t have to be at work early the following morning.

I do not like exploding things. I do not like their colorful rings.

I do not like them late at night. I do not like them in my sight.

I neither like them in the dark, or exploding high, above the park.

I do not like exploding things. Nor the frustration that they bring.

It took me a bit of convincing, but I’ve managed to group the five fosters in a close huddle around me. I’m singing my favorite James Taylor song, Close Your Eyes, loud enough so that when the fireworks boom and crash overhead, they can still hear me. Bunny and Tyrion are next to us but on the other side of the fence and I ensure they can hear me, too. With every explosion, the donkeys jerk and jolt and one by one, I press their faces into my belly and rub their ears, still singing my song.

All of the donkey’s exhales are heavier than usual right now—their fear warm through their snouts. I’ve taken one of the fosters, Charlie, into my embrace and I am resting the side of my face between his ears. Next to him is Ethel, a 9-month old jennet. In her large eye, I see another firework climbing up through the night sky—a trail of glitter moving across her pupil. Her eye widens and I quickly wrap my arm around her neck, too. The firework booms and all the donkeys jump.

“Shhh shhh shhh,” I say to them, now squatting down. I continue to sing.

After the longest 10 minutes that has ever happened, the fireworks finally stop and it is quiet but for the crickets and heavy snorts and exhales from the donkeys. They’re still scared and I don’t blame them. I don’t want to leave them still afraid, so I decide that now would be a good time to try and meditate. I, myself, have been trying to meditate more often as a way to keep my perpetual anxiety about everything at bay.  For example, when I’m standing in front of the front door having just locked it yet still unable to convince myself that I have, I try to slow down my breath. When I inhale, I say “the door is locked”  and when I exhale I say, “you have locked the door.”  Inhale, “It is done.” Exhale. “It is done.” It works, sometimes. Perhaps it will work on the donkeys, too.

I lead all 7 of the donkeys over to the gate which separates the fosters from mine and take a seat upon a pile of hay. Two of the fosters start to pick at the hay while the other three stand back a few paces and begin to graze. On the other side of the gate, Bunny and Tee stand still and alert.

I close my eyes and pull in a long breath which I hold at the bottom of my belly for a few seconds. I imagine that the breath is a warm light that’s the color of honey and when I exhale, I imagine it pouring across the ground, illuminating everything it touches. I imagine that the ground beneath all of us is now a glowing gold that exposes any fear and any anger that lingers in the shadows around us.

I say, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

The donkeys seem unchanged so I pull in another breath, imagining that the light of it is brighter and warmer. When I exhale, the glowing gold beneath us is even brighter. I say again, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

One of the fosters lifts his head from the hay and looks at me, chewing slowly.

I pull in another breath and it’s so warm that I start to sweat. I exhale and it’s practically daytime in this light. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

All the donkeys are looking at me now. They are all very still.

One more breath—this time, the light removing all negativity from the space around us in the same way helpless twigs are disintegrated in a growing campfire. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”

Behind me, Bunny revs up for a bray. As her breath quickens, one of the fosters suddenly lets out a bray. Soon, all seven donkeys are braying and braying loudly—so loud that it echoes and bounces back from the trees around us.  It’s a chorus of relief releasing the fear that they’ve had since the fireworks started a half an hour ago out into the universe. The differing pitches of their voices sends a vibration through everything around us—the whole world consumed by their song.

Their voices linger in the air for a moment before disintegrating softly away like a clearing fog when, one by one, the fosters wander off quietly into the night. Tyrion snorts and saunters away, too. Moving through the gate and locking it behind me, Bunny waits for me. I wrap  my arms around her neck and lay my head on hers. With my face between her ears that have laid back, I sing my song one more time, loud enough so only she can hear it.

Back inside, King Ranch has fallen asleep in the recliner in the living room, so I gently nudge him and say, “let’s go to bed.” On the way to our room, I stop and peek at Little Foot who is asleep in his crib and luckily, has managed to stay asleep despite the earlier fireworks. I lean down, kiss his forehead, and adjust the blanket over his belly.

May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy. All of us. In this house and on this property. In all homes and on all properties. May we all be free from danger. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy.

May we all recognize our connection to each other and our responsibility to care for one another.

And may we not, pretty please, set off fireworks late on a Sunday night anymore. With a cherry on top, I’m begging.

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Midnight Meditations

 

The Morning Five Foster Donkeys Arrived

In my freshly shined boots and my one pair of jeans without any holes, I’m standing at the edge of the gravel road out in front of the ranch. The sun has only barely peeked over the treetops; it’s morning rays filtering everything in a lively, lemony hue. Little Foot is securely fastened in a toddler hiking pack that’s strapped around my back and he’s saying “ball” over and over again. I’ve unlocked, unlatched and opened one of the larger side gates of our property and am holding the rusting chain that was looped around it in my left hand—it’s ends clanging softly together.  

Although it’s still quite early, the humidity of Texas summer engulfs us in it’s warm-washcloth embrace. My hair has already begun to stick to my forehead which frustrates me because I spent time straightening it before I came outside about 30 minutes ago. I also spent several minutes debating which shirt would be most appropriate to wear on the morning that I would be meeting our first five foster donkeys.

Ever since last summer, after King Ranch and I adopted Tyrion the mini donkey from the Humane Society, I’ve had it in my mind that I would like to volunteer to help in donkey adoptions, too. More than that, I felt like I needed to volunteer. I don’t know why. It’s been a growing and driving idea in my mind and so, after months of research, planning and lots of discussion, King Ranch and I have found ourselves here: opening our property to these five, soon-to-arrive foster donkeys.

Any minute now, the owner of the organization in which we are fostering the donkeys, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, will be pulling up with a trailer attached to his truck—five donkeys for whom I have yet to even see a picture will be in tow.

Moving the chain between my fingers one link at a time, I’m running through my mental checklist again:

-Troughs cleaned and filled: check.

-Hay distributed: check.

-Bunny and Tee secured into a separate paddock with plenty of hay and water: check.

-Fences sturdy and locks functioning properly: check.

-Coffee and cold water ready in case Mark, PVDR’s owner and today’s donkey deliverer, wants any: check.

I reach the end of the chain and start to move it through my fingers in the other direction. With my other hand, I tug at the bottom of the plain, gray t-shirt that I settled on when deciding what to wear. I thought plain, gray was calming and not the least bit intimidating for donkeys coming to a place they’ve never been. This must be terrifying for them.

From down the road, I hear the slow, heavy crunching of gravel. Although I can’t see beyond the tree line what or who has turned onto our road, I get the strange feeling that it’s got to be them: the five.

I gather the chain up in my hand and place it on the ground in front of the open gate before adjusting Little Foot’s pack on my back with a bounce which makes him giggle. The gravel crunching is getting closer as I run my fingers through my hair in an attempt to make it presentable.

I’m suddenly very nervous. Are we doing the right thing? Can we really take care of five more donkeys?

I shake my head and pull in a long inhale. In the bottom of my belly, I hold my breath and close my eyes. I imagine the day we adopted Tyrion and how touched I was at the grace in which that organization handled all these animals in search of a forever home. I remember how Jo, the woman who led us around, knew every single donkey, horse and mule and all about their stories. I remember how she’d taken the time to know them and how she was probably sizing us up—wondering if we’d be fit owners for Tee. I remember wanting to do what she did: help save donkeys.  And I wanted to do it just like her—thoroughly and with my entire heart. By the time donkeys need fostering, they’ve already been through so much. I wanted to be a peaceful and loving transition for them.

Through a small opening in my mouth, I let out my exhale and open my eyes. From around the tree line, a large, white truck approaches with a low, rumbling diesel engine—a dark green trailer rattling along behind it. It’s them.

As the truck halts in front of the ranch, I jog around the side of the trailer—Little Foot bouncing and giggling in his pack. A tall man with a long, white goatee exits the truck and from behind his sunglasses, he says, “Jess?”

I reply, “Yes,” and smile.

He extends his leathery hand and I extend mine—realizing then that my hand is shaking. When it meets his, I notice too how clammy my hand is in his dry and strong one.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he says, removing his sunglasses. He’s got a deep and steady voice which is calming for me.

I say, “Likewise,” and relax my shoulders.

He leads me to the trailer and says, “This is them.” I stand on my tip toes and peek in—five sets of furry ears is about all I can see. He continues, “You got a good group here.”

We’re both quiet for a moment. In the distance, cicadas call from the trees and flicking grass bugs hop and buzz on the sides of the gravel road.

I clear my throat and say to him, “Thank you so much for this.”

He smiles and says, “Lead the way,” and climbs back into his truck.

I direct him onto the property as he maneuvers his truck and the large trailer of donkeys flawlessly around behind me. As we reach the paddock in which the five will be staying, I open the gate and motion for him to stop. He steps out of his truck, unlatches the trailer and there they are. The five.

Five donkeys—all smaller than Bunny but bigger than Tee—are staring at me. Their eyes are wide with curiosity and the ears shift around quickly. My heart is pounding so heavily that I barely hear the sound of their hooves against the metal as one-by-one, they gallop out of the trailer and onto our property. We’re both smiling as we watch them gallop away.

After the owner and I talk for a long while about the logistics of fostering, he shakes my hand and leaves me to it.

I’m now standing in the middle of the property. The sun is higher now and pure, white heat. Little Foot is still strapped in his pack on my back only now, he’s not saying anything. Bunny and Tee are quiet and curious in the paddock to my left and the five fosters are curious and exploring in the paddock to my right.

So many long ears. So many flicking tails. So many snorts and exhales and big, searching eyes.

Once more, I pull in a long inhale and hold it. With my eyes closed, I think of Jo back at the humane society. She had a day one, also, right? When I release my breath and open my eyes, every single donkey on my property is looking at me with their ears straight up.

I peek over my shoulder at Little Foot who grins when he sees my eyes and say, “Alright bud. Let’s do this.”

The five foster donkeys

 

The Ghosts of Summer: Part One

Hauntings don’t happen in the summertime: they happen in the wintertime, right? In the summer, the trees are much too lush and kids are out of school, bobbing up and down in neighborhood pools. It’s light until 9 at night at which point the sun sets in a painted portrait of vibrant and far-reaching oranges and pinks. Hauntings don’t happen here.

Instead, hauntings happen in the wintertime—when the tree’s skeletal arms reach up towards a heavy, gray sky. Figures drift across the frosty ground when you exhale while shadows sneak in the edges of your vision. Frigid air creeps into your bones as the wind whispers in pointed, almost comprehensible warnings.

Hauntings happen in the winter, not the summer. Right?

It’s a mid-June afternoon in week 5 of no rain, although the humidity’s weight would suggest some is on its way. The warm washcloth through which we all breathe is heavy on the chest and hopeless for dry clothes. The donkey’s troughs need daily refilling as evaporation is working on overtime—mirages of microwaving water waving lazily above them during the day.

I keep an upside down bucket over the various faucet hookups around the property so the donkeys don’t hurt themselves by trying to scratch their faces on the metal spigots. For the first trough, even the plastic bucket is too hot to lift without gloves, so I do so very quickly, using the tips of my fingers to flail it up and away. As the bucket is flying to the side, something catches my eye by the faucet—a quick, chaotic scramble beneath the shadow of the blue hose. I lean in, but see nothing. A few, salty streams of sweat glide over my lips and drip off my chin into the dust around the faucet.

Round by round, I unwind the hose and walk it over to the first trough. As I approach the trough, whose water has managed to empty by half in only a day, I’m surprised to see just how much algae has formed as well when wait a sec, that’s not algae. I squint.

Oh god. That’s a squirrel.

I drop the hose and turn from the trough, acid bubbling in my stomach.

I peek back over my shoulder to confirm and indeed, that’s a bloated, belly-up squirrel in the trough.

I call for King Ranch who is working on the riding mower, “Honey!” He mustn’t hear me. Louder, I say, “Honeyyy!”

He drops a tool into the grass and lifts his head, his brow furrowed.

I say, “Squirrel,” pointing at the trough, “in the trough. Dead squirrel.” My stomach has folded in on itself.

King Ranch stands and meets me by the trough. After a long exhale that could mean frustration or grief, he says, “I’ll get the shovel.”

Later, after he’s buried the squirrel and I’ve cleaned out the trough, I turn on the hose and lay it in there to refill. It takes some time, it being a large trough, so I leave it and walk back to the barn. Well, it’s the back house, but I’m considering turning it into a barn. This is where a few weeks back, we found the dangling Rockstar rooster. [his story here]

Inside the soon-to-be barn, it’s dark and damp. Sulfur light enters through the slits in the rotting wood and in the rays, specs of filth float aimlessly. The ground is covered in a thin layer of hay and there are more wasp nests on the ceiling than I can count. A hodge podge of rusted farm equipment, wood scraps and fuel containers scatter about the edges of the room. I’m in here to decide if I think it will be too much work to actually proceed with my barn project when from behind a stack of wood, something moves. It’s too dim and dusty to see anything, but for a moment, I stare. Maybe it was a mouse? Or a lizard?

I take a few steps closer when a wasp dive bombs towards me—its buzz, loud and angry. I quickly cover my head and dart out of the house.

Across the yard, the trough is overflowing so I pull the hose out and start winding it back around the faucet. Again, something scatters in the side of my vision in the shade of the spigot. This time, I lean in closer, looking beneath the knobs. In the shadows, there is small movement: a chaotic shuffling. I look around for anything and behind me is a stick, which I pick up and poke into the moving shadow.

It wiggles and whines and then darts into the open.

A black widow spider.

I stumble backward, landing in mud that has formed from the running hose, and scramble to my feet, holding the stick out like a dagger. It shakes in my hand as again I call, “Honey!” I do not take my eyes from the spider hanging in a messy web that is barely visible. “Honey, it’s a black widow!”

I’m surprised at how plastic the spider looks. It’s shiny: oily black with a shiny, red hourglass. It looks fabricated. But it’s looking back at me, furious. I suspect that black widows don’t like the sunlight, and now, I’ve exposed her.

King Ranch approaches, wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm. He says, “It’s a what?”

I use the stick to point out the spider. He tips up his cowboy hat and leans in before he, too, stumbles backwards. “Holy shit,” he says.

He takes the stick from me and tries to stab the spider, but it’s much too quick. It darts in and out of the shadows, striking its arms up at King Ranch.

This duel goes on for a clumsy while before King Ranch defeats the black widow. It’s not a triumphant win, by any means. After a moment of standing over the curled spider corpse—a few legs having been dismembered during the fight—King Ranch says, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

I say, “I know.”

“But she could kill Little Foot.”

I nod.

It’s the next day and King Ranch is at work. I’m out in the pasture checking the donkey’s troughs which thankfully have no bloated squirrels, although they do need to be topped off. Again, I quickly toss the bucket off the faucet and also thankfully, I see no scattering movement which could belong to a black widow. I plop the hose into the trough and walk back to the barn.

As I approach the front door of the barn, I hear shuffling coming from inside. I lean in and my weight snaps a stick that I didn’t realize was beneath my boot. When it snaps, the shuffling stops.

I slowly push the creaky door open and again, behind the same pile of wood, something moves. It’s a small movement: like a shift, although, I still can’t see what it is. I take a few, careful steps into the house before my eyes fully adjust to the dimness of the damp room. The movement stops and in front of the pile of wood, there is something small and round gently rocking side to side. I stand as still as I can, even holding my breath. Flakes float curiously in the rays of entering light.

After a moment and when the round thing stops rocking, I take another step and nudge the round thing with my boot. It rolls over and oh gosh. It’s a small skull. I take a clumsy step back and shake my head. Squinting my eyes, I look closer and yes, it’s a skull. It’s a skull whose face is pointed and small. A skull that could be that of a squirrel’s.

My heart is suddenly an unbearable weight in my chest as I run out of the house and out to the spot where King Ranch buried the bloated squirrel just yesterday. The whole grave has been dug up. All that’s left is loose dirt and a deep hole. I look all around but see nothing.

Sweat is pouring from my brow which is pounding with a frantic pulse when I realize that the trough is overflowing. Grabbing the hose, I wrap it around the faucet as quickly as I can, struggling for breath, when something catches my eye. I stop.

Hanging from the knob on the faucet is the black widow. She’s not in the shadows today: she’s out in the open and she’s staring at me. Her belly’s hour glass is even brighter red and all eight of her arms are spread wide and ready.

Summer sunset
The last bit of sun in the summer

Big BRAYnnouncement!

 

 

With an old kitchen rag, I whacked old, dusty cobwebs from the extra water troughs that are stored in the back house.  Later, I dampened the same cloth to wipe down all the hay feeders until they shined. I thought about where I might hang the feeders and place the troughs and imagined what they will be like—our first shipment of rescue donkeys.

I imagine they will be scared. Donkeys don’t forget things. Some have been neglected, abused, overworked, or abandoned. Lucky for all of us, the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has grown into the largest organization of its kind after its humble beginnings 16 years (and 8,000+ rescues) ago.

We are honored to become a part of such a loving and prestigious group of fellow donkey enthusiasts and we are thrilled to be able to contribute to such a good cause.

Please follow us on Facebook here to keep up with the latest news and invite your friends to ‘like’ us too—especially if they’re fellow donkey enthusiasts!

Thank you so much to PVDR for welcoming us into your organization. We are so touched.