Meet the `Golden Retrievers In Pony Outfits'

A visit to a donkey sanctuary

`WILL she kick me?" is my first question as I stand at the far end of Megan's stall, pitchfork in hand, tentatively poking around for lumps of donkey manure. Apart from an occasional horseback ride as a child, I have never been at such close quarters with an animal of this size before.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to spend a weekend with a stable full of donkeys, he blinked with amazement, then broke into a hearty laugh. "You must be joking!" was all he could get out. Nor did his laughing subside much when I explained the circumstances. Nearly all of the donkeys I would be getting to know had been saved from deliberate maltreatment or thoughtless neglect. Donkeys for him, as for many people, conjure up an image of, in his words, "really stupid animals who are [good for ] only the very worst jobs."

Claire and Tim Belton, the owners of the home for maltreated donkeys that I visited, disagree. They believe donkeys are among the most misunderstood creatures on earth. "They are not the slightest bit stupid," observes Claire. "In fact, they are highly intelligent. And I have never found one that is stubborn, as is the other image. My theory on why donkeys are so misused and abused is that, being such sweet-natured animals, they will accept that kind of use. They are extremely anxious to please. They wan t to be gentle; they want human love and companionship."

Donkeys were introduced into Western Europe, including Britain, by the Romans centuries ago. In recent years, however, demand for them as work animals has declined, which has contributed to a general apathy toward their welfare, not to mention an increase in abuse and neglect.

But the Beltons are striving to give this sorry tale a happy twist. The idea of founding their sanctuary came to them 18 months ago after reading about an incident in Ireland where a donkey had been strung up in a tree, as a teenage prank, with a bonfire lit underneath it. The Beltons don't know the fate of that particular unfortunate animal, but, with 10 acres of pastureland in the southwest corner of Britain, they knew in an instant what they would do. And now, with 16 rescued donkeys, the sanctuary ha s proved popular with the public - not to mention with the animals themselves who thrive on all the petting and pampering they receive. So the couple hit upon the creative notion of taking it a step further: donkey weekends. Animal lovers "adopt" a donkey, spending Friday night through Sunday afternoon doing everything from "mucking out" stalls to giving their adoptees an affectionate good-night hug after the donkey chores are done. "All our donkeys have been deprived of love in the past," writes Claire, "s o they need your love and attention now."

Back at Megan's stall, stablehand Ivan assures me that Megan "wouldn't dream of hurting anyone." That doesn't really answer my question. She may not dream of it, but would she actually do it if I got too near? I have visions of the mule and donkey cartoon characters I'd seen as a child rearing their hind legs and kicking rather athletically backward at whoever was supposedly annoying them.

I AM doing the morning stable tasks, starting with refilling the water buckets, followed by removing and replacing the dirty straw. Claire gives a brisk demo in one of the stalls, then we city-slickers roll up our sleeves and dig in. There are shovels and a pitchfork nearby. I naively opt for the pitchfork, presuming it's a "real" farmer's tool. But the prongs are so widely spaced that what begins as a large heap of straw becomes three thin stalks by the time I've transported it to the wheelbarrow. And t he lumpy bits, whether scooped or skewered, are even more unwieldy to negotiate. Practicality wins out. I exchange tools, and, shovel in hand, I look again at Megan. She lazily raises her large head, mid-munch, and stares at me.

Megan shares her cozy straw-strewn stall with Bridey. To see the bond between the two is touching. Bridey hides behind Megan as I begin shoveling. When I move closer, Bridey becomes agitated and Megan finally puts her neck over Bridey's back, her chin resting on the other side, to still her nervous friend and, in an extra comforting gesture, to draw her near.

It's the donkey way, as Tim and Claire later explain over lunch. They often develop strong attachments, are very protective of their friends and can be seen "chatting" softly nose-to-nose to their special buddies. Knowing this, the Beltons have deliberately built their stalls for two, with large spaces between the slats, so that the pairs of animals can easily see their neighbors and stick their snouts through for a friendly snuffle.

I decided to adopt Megan and Bridey. It seemed unfair to adopt only one when they are obviously so close. Before dinner on Friday evening, all the guests went to the stalls to select, and be selected by, the animals. The donkeys quickly came over for a pat and a hopeful sniff, being well-accustomed these days to people bearing carrots and mint Lifesavers, two of their favorite snacks. The choice from among so many sweet furry faces looking up at mine was a tough one. Compared with the others, however, Me gan stood out, as she moved so gingerly. As for Bridey, she would immediately flinch if a hand went anywhere near her head.

Biographies of the donkeys are posted outside their stalls; reading these I learned that both Megan and Bridey are from Ireland and had been snatched at the last moment from the slaughterhouse. They were in a particularly sorry state upon arrival here nine months ago, and my heart immediately went out to them. Their hooves had not been properly trimmed for years (making walking very painful), and Bridey had been repeatedly beaten.

By Sunday, with carrots and mint Lifesavers in hand, I arrive again at Megan's and Bridey's for morning chores. Donkeys have good memories - for kindness, as well as abuse. The day before I had patted, cleaned, groomed (Megan only, since Bridey is too timid), picked stones out of hooves, observed the blacksmith at work, led back and forth to pasture, not to mention talked ceaselessly to my donkeys. The Beltons and stablehands all do this, and the practice proves highly infectious. So upon my Sunday arriv al, I'm not a total stranger. On Friday, Bridey backed away the minute I opened her gate, but she now inches over to me, raising her head surprisingly close to mine with her ears pointing forward, an indication that she is keenly curious about me. Laying a carrot flat in my hand, I hold it up. She tenderly caresses my palm with her furry lips, and the carrot is gone, with not a tooth in sight: Unlike most other animals, donkeys keep teeth well away when taking food from people's hands.

Megan is busy devouring the new straw that I've just laid out. "Don't eat the bedding, Megan," calls out Claire in mock severity. "You wouldn't go to a hotel and start eating the blankets, now would you?" Megan pauses and looks around. She sees Bridey sidling up to me with one ear forward, the other slightly back, donkey semaphore for supreme contentment. Megan moseys over to see what's going on. To my amazement, I now have both donkeys eating out of my hand and, by all ear indication, deliriously happy.

Bridey, says Ivan, only takes food from certain people; she has undoubtedly sized me up over the past 36 hours and decided I'm not half-bad, as humans go. But the real pleasure is all mine.

After slipping on her halter, I lead Megan out for some fresh air. Yesterday, she sensed I was nervous. Today, I handle her with more confidence, coaxing all the while by telling her how much fun it will be in the pasture with her pals. As for Bridey, she needs no leading: Where Megan goes, so goes Bridey.

Penny, who preceded them, immediately comes over and nuzzles my chest. Thinking she wants a mint Lifesaver, I give her one. She takes it, but then suddenly noses her head under my arm, lays it on my chest, and snuggles close. More than a Lifesaver, she wants a hug. I realize now what the Beltons have been saying all along is true, that donkeys are similar to dogs - "golden retrievers in pony outfits," as they put it.

Before too long, Megan, whom I've just spent some time scraping the mud off of prior to a brisk brushing, proceeds to lie down in the slushiest mud patch she can find for a good shake, rattle, and roll. I can't believe what I'm seeing. All my handiwork is undone in a second. But there's method in her madness. Unlike many other animals, donkeys' coats aren't that warm; the mud, the animals know instinctively, helps to insulate them.

We prepare for our Sunday late morning picnic - hot beverages and cookies - in the woods. Loading Margaret-Joyce and Rosie into the horse trailer, we drive to the general area of the chosen spot. The donkeys carry our picnic the rest of the way as we walk alongside. Contrary to widespread belief, donkeys can only safely manage about 110 lbs. on their backs; any more than that is a burden. The panniers filled with our picnic are only a tiny load, but Claire, nevertheless, fusses to make sure the weight is

even on both sides.

Back at the sanctuary, I learn that for a set donation of $14, a donkey can be adopted for 12 months, which includes a biannual letter, "written" by their own animal, a newsy account of all that has happened to him or her and signed with - no kidding - a hoof print. Judging from the many cards tacked on the various stalls from some of the adopters, along with the stories of people sending gifts and stopping by repeatedly to see their special donkey, the sanctuary clearly brings an added dimension of joy to those who might otherwise be a bit lonelier without it, or, who simply have little contact with such gentle animals.

The venture has also had a dramatic impact on the Beltons. "I must admit that we had a [negative] view of the human race before all this," says Tim. "I don't think it's that we get a different kind of person coming here," muses Claire, "but there is something about donkeys, something God built into them, which can also bring out the very best in people."

Late Sunday afternoon, I give Megan and Bridey their last buckets of "yum-yums" - an treat of muesli laced with molasses. Not so long ago, if anyone had told me that donkeys were such lovable animals and I would find so much fun in the sort of things I'd been doing over this past weekend, I would have, at the very least, chuckled. Now I can't think of any place I'd rather be. I replenish the hay in their feed basket, fill the water pail, empty my pockets of carrots and Lifesavers, then say a reluctant go odbye. A hug for Megan, a blown kiss to Bridey. A self-confessed ignoramus about donkeys until just a few days ago, I found they certainly brought the best out in me.

For more information about Megan, Bridey, and the other donkeys at the sanctuary, you can write to: Tim and Claire Belton, Lower Maidenland, St. Kew, Bodman, Cornwall PL30 38HA, England.

`Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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