Defense Team

Folks who have come to visit the farm (or live reasonably close by) have become familiar with Belle, our guard donkey. Her classic bray fills the air with alternating low blares to high squeaks when something new is about. Belle originally joined the farm in 2006, and no one was quite certain of her age—somewhere between 9 and 19 being the previous owner’s guesses.

This winter, it became harder and harder for Belle to keep weight on, despite being in a barn away from the north wind, plenty of food, and vet checks. Blood tests showed no ailments, but it was determined that our trusty donkey was growing quite old (maybe 25 to 28), which in people years would be in the 80’s and 90’s. Poor Belle was becoming a little old lady, though she still had plenty of spunk.

Well, the farm can’t risk being without a donkey, whose purpose is to guard the sheep from predators out in the pasture. We’d seen a tan-colored wolf this summer, skirting the field, and the lack of coyotes howling at night is a fairly firm assurance that a pack of wolves is in the vicinity.

This meant it was time to keep our ears out for a train-in donkey who could learn the ropes from Belle.

At first, we heard about Belle’s brother, a donkey named Joker, but the farrier who trims Belle hooves told us that this Jack was also quite elderly and having his own health difficulties. While Jack donkeys are more aggressive by nature, Jenny’s are naturally more protective of their livestock family because of maternal instinct, which seemed a better fit on our woman-powered farm.

And then, just recently, Kara spotted an ad in the Yellow Pages for a variety of equine, including a female donkey, outside of Shell Lake. She phoned the lady right away to schedule a time to visit and see the animals.

Just afterwards, the donkey’s owner received a call from another family, saying that they had the money and a trailer and were coming for the donkey. “I’m sorry, someone already called and is coming to see them tomorrow,” she responded.

“Isn’t it first come first served!?!”

“These are my animals. I think I can make that decision. If Kara doesn’t want the donkey, I’ll let you know.”

The next afternoon, after the lunch rush at Farmstead had subsided, Kara slipped away to run some errands and visit the place, which had once bred and shown horses. Now the kids were grown up and moved away, the price of hay was steep, and it was time to downsize.

Of similar size to Belle but with a smaller rib cage structure and generally more gray all over, the donkey immediately took to Kara, wanting its face, ears, and neck rubbed and scratched. “What’s her name?” she asked.

The lady chuckled. “Well, my kids couldn’t think of anything better to call her than Sexy.”

Kara cringed, “We do an awful lot of farm tours for kids, and that wouldn’t be an easy name to explain because EVEYONE wants to know the name of the donkey. We’ll have to give her a stage name. How about Lexy.”

Our sheep dog Lena will often respond to Tina, Nina, Bina, or even just Eena, and Sexy didn’t seem phased by being called Lexy either. But this wasn’t a one-critter deal. Lexy’s owner had purchased the donkey at an auction when she was only a year old, and the perky gray creature had grown up with her best friend Carmel, a miniature horse that was mostly white with large light brown patches. To Kara, it was apparent that the two would have to come together.

Ever since we had moved to the farm, Kara had wanted horses. “Oh no,” Mom had said definitively. “Horses are too many vet bills for us. And they can be very dangerous when you haven’t grown up learning how to handle them.” Back in the days when the Fullingtons owned our homestead, horses had been an important part of the labor force, but their presence at least since 1968 (when Grandpa bought the farm) had been absent until this month, when Lexy and Carmel came home in the stock trailer. She’s a bit on the short side, and not rideable (though cart trained) but a horse nonetheless.

It was dark when Kara made it home with the trailer, announcing how happy the lady was that these two animals were coming to a better home than that other brusk phone call had offered. Both had trailered well, but it was time to get them to shelter for the night.

Brisk north winds had made us move Belle from her usual nighttime post in a run-in shelter near the edge of the pasture into the Red Barn, where she could be more comfortable. The new arrivals were pretty quiet, concerned about what was happening—except for Carmel, who eagerly jumped out of the trailer, leading the way for cautious Lexy.

Taking over Belle’s old post, they could watch the morning chores about the farm, in the barnyard, and out to pasture. Carmel stuffed her face with the grasses Belle hadn’t been interested in eating in her pen, while Lexy watched with dark eyes and swiveled her radar ears, occasionally letting loose her foghorn bray. Both wanted to be combed and given attention, and it certainly wasn’t fair that the nagging sheep next door got fed first.

Fences were moved, sheep let out to pasture, and then Belle was being led from the barn to her guarding post out in the field. The two donkeys spotted one another, and the day was filled with dueling brays, back and forth. The addition of a second donkey, though separated from each other, put a renewed step in Belle’s pace. Who was this newcomer, and why was she here?

These couple weeks since Lexy and Carmel arrived have been time for them to get used to the new routine and begin forming bonds with their sheepy neighbors. Belle still goes out with the flock to pasture, while the newbies have access to the stronghold pen around the lamb barn during the day, where they can watch, munch, and take it all in.

Eventually, it will be the new defense team that joins the sheep, while Belle can retire to the less strenuous post of guarding the rams and pigs in the west field. But then, what was that, yet another bray? Oh dear, it seems our neighbor, Ed, now has a donkey at his farm too! Look out wolves, you better stay away from this farm. Our donkeys can kick ass, if you know what I mean. See you down on the farm sometime.