It’s probably safe to say that Smoke is the most sought-after donkey in Iraq.
Two years after he wandered onto a US military base west of Baghdad and won the hearts of the men stationed there, he’s landed at the center of a cross-cultural custody battle involving marines now back in the United States, a sheikh, and an Iraqi family that has demanded $30,000 to give him up.
It’s unclear who the skinny young donkey originally belonged to. But for the Marine logistics unit that adopted him in 2008, patching up the cuts on his legs and face and nursing him back to health, he quickly became part of their family.
Fathers bonded with children they hadn’t seen in months by e-mailing photos of Smoke. Children who grew up with the movie ‘Shrek,’ which features a talking donkey, sent Smoke cards, letters, and care packages with donkey treats. The military made an exception to its ban on pets, officially declaring the gregarious donkey a working therapy animal.
“Marines aren’t all tough guys with hard hearts – we’re suckers for kids and animals,” says retired Marine Col. John Folsom, who was commandant of Camp Taquddam in Anbar Province when Smoke showed up.
“He’s a symbol in my mind of humility and peace,” adds Folsom, who now runs Wounded Warriors Family Support and is spearheading an effort to bring Smoke to Nebraska to work with children whose parents have been wounded or killed. “He worked for us in the capacity that he made families happy.”
Asked how he would respond to concerns that such love and attention should be focused on people in war-torn Iraq rather than animals, Folsom says “I’ve never heard that.... Smoke made a lot of children happy. He was a diversion for a lot of us who were deployed a long way from home.”
Adventures of a free-range donkey
Smoke was handed over to another Marine unit when Folsom’s unit left. When the last of the Marines left Iraq last fall they gave Smoke to the Army unit replacing them. When the incoming Army unit said they weren't going to keep the donkey, a Marine major gave him away. (Editor's note: The original version misstated who gave Smoke away.)
“The Army wanted nothing to do with him,” says Folsom, referring to what is obviously still a sore point.
“The major told me, ‘I gave it to this sheikh in Fallujah,’ and the sheikh said, ‘I gave it to this family in Ramadi or Fallujah,’ and the family said, ‘Well, he’s a famous donkey, we want $30,000 for him,” says Folsom.
The sheikh has since offered to buy Smoke back for the marines, presumably at a lower price, but logistical hurdles remain – not least of all corralling Smoke, whom Folsom calls a “free-range donkey.”
Smoke's trip to Nebraska foiled by Kuwait
Once Folsom located Smoke, he worked out a plan with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to bring Smoke to the States.
The donkey would fly via Kuwait, Amsterdam, and Washington Dulles, where he would be quarantined for two weeks before being sent to his new home in Nebraska – first at Take Flight Farms in Omaha, and then to a Wounded Warriors retreat in the northwestern part of the state.
The ASPCA says if handled properly, the stress on Smoke from traveling should be minimal. Nor should there be any stress on US taxpayers, since the animal will travel via commercial air.
But Kuwait has stopped allowing donkeys to enter the country. “I was hoping to have the donkey back in Dulles by Christmas,” says Folsom, who isn't giving up. “If not [via] Kuwait, there’s Jordan. Or perhaps Turkey.”