Friday, January 29, 2010
Donkeys and Other Pets
I've been on my own for going on two weeks now - KB went to a gig and expected to be home this weekend. Instead, he's going to be snowed in in North Carolina - perhaps until spring if their reputation for snow removal there lives up to its billing.
I was about to go browse the pets for adoption page again to fantasize about adopting a puppy (timing is wrong but damn!) and found the picture above here. It reminded me of Sebastian.
I have no pictures of Sebastian. He was a small gray donkey we adopted as a companion for our horse, Sam. Yes, we had a horse, too. It was a rather insane time in my life.
I've lived the farm life, I've trudged through the snow to break the ice on water buckets, seen the horses' breath condensing in the cold winter air. And I've had a donkey.
Sam was the world's sweetest horse but he was having trouble adjusting to his new life as a pet. He'd come from a large lesson barn with lots of company. He kept breaking loose and running home - a rather dangerous occupation as he had to trot across a county road. He did it twice.
Up the road from us was a farm that was home to a traveling circus. They had elephants, camels, giraffes. And they had animals used in a petting zoo. I figured they might have a donkey that we could buy as a new buddy for Sam.
I'm not going to get into my opinion of circuses and petting zoos. This isn't a soapbox story. The owner seemed like a nice enough fellow who was fond of his animals and most of them were in good shape. But when I explained my mission he took me into a barn to look at a sad, droopy, emaciated old donkey.
"This is Sebastian," he told me. "He's the oldest donkey here. He's my favorite. But he's getting old and he's not happy. We can't take him with us anymore. He's lonely. He doesn't eat. If I could find him a good home, I'd give him away for free."
I scratched Sebastian's dirty ears and spoke to him softly. He didn't react.
"He's a good old fellow," the owner assured me. "He deserves a good retirement."
Always a sucker for a sad story, I agreed. The owner said he'd drop the donkey off later that afternoon.
By evening, we owned a donkey.
Sebastian had a small, donkey-sized stall across the aisle from Sam. The gate seemed secure, though it wasn't the Fort Knox-type contraption we'd rigged to keep Sam from breaking down the door when he'd been in Houdini mode.
The next morning at five ayem, I woke to an ungodly braying.
HEE HAWWWWW....SHREEEEE...HEEE HAWWWWWW!!!
Nobody tells you the worst part of a donkey's song is the part where he keeps singing while he inhales for the next line. Yikes.
So I bundled up while the family slept and fed the two roommates. Sam was looking at Sebastian with a dubious expression. Sebastian was looking downright hungry.
The days turned into a routine. Sebastian screamed - I mean sang - every morning at five. He learned that there was no point continuing endlessly - I'd be there around seven. Everyone ate. I turned them out in the field and the two new roommates avoided each other. Once in a while, Sebastian would sidle over toward Sam, then Sam would try to kick him. Sometimes Sam got curious. Then Sebastian would kick him.
It wasn't exactly a lovefest, but they didn't try to kill each other, either.
Sebastian began to put on weight. The constant brushing from me, from the kids, began to make a difference. His coat started gleaming. He began to get a feisty look in his eye. Once in a while he trotted right underneath Sam's stomach as Sam was grazing. Sam's eyes would roll.
Then Sebastian figured out how to open his gate. I showed up one morning fearing something was wrong; I realized I hadn't woken to the usual Donkey Serenade. Was he dead?
When I opened the barn door, Sebastian greeted me with a friendly head butt. He's broken out of his stall, knocked over the can holding the feed, and binged.
I was terrified; if a horse does that, it can be fatal. Their digestion just can't handle overeating. Donkeys, apparently, are made of tougher stuff. Not only did it not bother Sebastian, he enjoyed it so much he began to make a habit of it.
No matter how we tried to rig his door so he couldn't get out, he did. He was getting positively fat. He was sassy. It was, in a very annoying way, totally delightful.
Then he started breaking out of the pasture. Sam's escapes had ended as soon as Sebastian arrived. Now he watched Sebastian go, apparently unable to squeeze through a donkey-sized space in the electric fence.
We didn't know he was gone til the phone rang. It was our neighbor.
"I think your donkey is in our backyard. My wife is in hysterics; she's convinced it's a coyote."
I've never figured out that one, but it was indeed Sebastian, happily munching on their perfectly manicured grass and leaving a large, steaming memento for them.
The story has a bittersweet ending. We were forced to give up the house, the horse. Sam went first to a rescue farm, then the home of a young girl who loved him. My daughter and I grieved - we still do.
I had to find a home for Sebastian. We found a kindly older couple who desperately wanted a donkey because he'd grown up with one. They put Sebastian in a car with them and drove away. She called me later to say that a tear fell from his eye as they left. I felt like the worst kind of traitor.
But I called and I checked on him from time to time.
Sebastian had found a wonderful home. He bonded with the family dog, trotted around their back door and learned a new trick.
"When he's lonely, when he's bored, he comes up on the deck and bangs his hoof against the patio door," she told me. "He's broken through the screen three times but we just love him to death."
Sebastian lived there for a couple of more years, fat, happy and very sassy, and died peacefully of old age.
I'm glad I was part of his life.