I’ve had a hard time acting my age. That’s not it, exactly. It’s more like I’m straddling the Grand Canyon between my usual teen angst and dealing with the fact I’m supposed to be wearing support hose. It all started with my birthday. Two years ago.
Then recently a donkey came to the rescue that I work with. She was nothing special, really. Her “selling point” was her age, I guess. We joked about needing to carbon date her. We’re guessing upper thirties. At least.
Rule #1: Donkeys hate change.
She came into rescue and landed in a kind geriatric pen with a few other special needs cases. Nobody too active and there was a buffet; piles of hay, lots of fresh water, and feed pans brimming with senior feed. In short, paradise. But she was having none of it. She had more opinion than strength.
There’s an argument that she’d had a long life. On top of that, we’d just gotten a herd of starved yearlings in that needed foster homes, but we give everyone a chance. I offered to foster her at my barn. It’s slower and quieter here, and she was pretty wobbly. For me, there’s no rhyme or reason for when one animal stands out in this world of need, but it might have had something to do with those stupid support hose.
She had a crusty coat of felted dead hair; a few years’ worth that she hadn’t managed to shed out. And it looked like there might be damage to her hind end, she didn’t walk well. Coming to my farm was not a miracle cure. She still didn’t eat or drink anything. Donkeys are tough, but what if it was too late and her organs were shutting down?
She played with alfalfa but ignored hay. A few times a day, I tried some new mush concoction. Donkeys are notoriously nervous of water containers. If she was drinking, I couldn’t tell, so I tried changing those as well. On the third day, I used an old blue bucket and finally, she drank.
Rule #2: Donkeys please themselves.
In the meantime, I sat on a bucket in her pen, just sharing space. I already knew she wasn’t wild about being caught or led. She came with a warning that she didn’t like her ears being touched. Or apparently anything else for that matter.
Then one day I was on the bucket, cutting up an over-ripe pear to put on her mush, which was already the equine equivalent of a fine french meal. This pear was sticky-sweet and soft, and she walked right up to me. Her sense of smell was perfect. It took a long while, I sat very still, but she took a bite of the pear from my hand. Her face went soft and I could hear it sloshing around in her mouth. I dropped the rest of the pear onto her mush and left the pen. Of course, standing up meant that she backed off from her bowl, but I wanted to be mysterious and exciting.
People get too hung up on rescue animal’s histories. We love a tragic tale so we can feel sympathy and “tsk-tsk” and shake our do-gooder heads. If there’s one thing I know about rescue, it’s that the past doesn’t matter nearly like the present does. Says the woman who wears her teen angst around her ankles like stretched out cotton underwear.
Rule #3: Donkeys can be, well, cantankerous.
She tolerates grooming but just to mid-flank. I still haven’t picked up a foot. Flies were eating her raw and I wanted to get some of that hot pink Swat ointment on her wounds. She gives a decent NO! cue, but I was marginally successful and she was steaming mad about it. Then I gingerly tried fly spray. She darted but then paused. I sprayed again. There were enough flies still there, that I could see them drop off her leg and hit the ground. It’s possible she saw them, too. Now when I walk to her with the fly spray, she stands and waits, as if I’m serving boat drinks at the beach. Clearly no signs of dementia. I started to think she might pull through; I started to think her name might be Lillith.
Just on the off-chance that you’re cooing and thinking she is just the sweetest thing… she isn’t. She bites. And kicks. The dead hair is gone, but a hand anywhere near her poll and she tosses her head abruptly. She’s a donkey of strong convictions.
But don’t feel sorry for the goat. On a day that I could catch her, I doddered her out to the greenest grass for a different kind of dental exam. She dropped her head and slowly rubbed her nose back and forth, crushing it and sniffing deeply. She didn’t even try to take a bite. Her lips can scoop up mush, but her front teeth are useless. Know those billboards that show drug addicts with horrible teeth? That’s her. She has greenish-black nubbins of teeth. Meth teeth, so no worries about eating any goats.
Cantankerous defined: 1. bad-tempered, argumentative, uncooperative, quarrelsome, irascible, disagreeable. 2. Difficult to handle.
She was in a separate pen where she could eat in peace, along with Arthur, the goat, who was in detention with a broken leg. They formed a bond of co-dependent aggravation. Eventually Lillith stopped standing outside during thunder storms and went into the shed. Once she crossed that line, she used the shed for shade, too. One day she went to the gate to my family pen and turned her head to stare at me. I pride myself on being bilingual, so I opened the gate for her.
That pen had the Grandfather Horse, Edgar Rice Burro, and the rest of my herd. Five minutes of careful consideration later, she moved through the gate. The mares push her off sometimes, but she kicks back at them. She can get her hind a few inches off the ground these days. Lillith takes long naps in the sun and tries to get someone to do some mutual grooming. The Grandfather Horse, who’s always loved the stiffest curry, finds her an unsatisfactory partner. It’s mutual gumming, to tell the truth.
It’s been four months since Lillith came. She’s sleek, she has lousy ground manners, and she’s in fine voice. Her bray sounds like a combination of a train whistle and a bunch of sixth-grade boys making fart noises. And she isn’t afraid to use it.
Right now we’re debating the last feed of the day. She holds, loudly, that I should feed at sundown. With the season change, I tell her the sun sets earlier; I tell her it was always about the time on the clock. Then she makes it pretty clear what she thinks about clocks.
Measuring time is a peculiarity to our species–clocks and calendars rule humans. I miss my friends who’ve timed-out and retired to warm climates, while I throw hay and think about reinventing myself one more time. I’m stubborn about what I want and I’m at an awkward age.
On the high side, I’ve finally found my spirit animal.