Remembering Belle

When you are a steward to animals—whether pets, livestock, and in some cases wild animals—a critical part of your role in service is midwifing life’s transitions. This includes assisting with births, training as they age, care through sickness or injury, and eventually serving to ease suffering at the time of their passing.

All life on earth has its beginning, its growth, its decay, and its end. Just because that’s how it is, doesn’t make it easy—in between we learn, we struggle, and sometimes we wish that the inevitable end somehow wouldn’t happen. The role of stewardship, however, asks us not to run away in the face of death, but to remain compassionate and calm, offering reassurance that our care is a beacon in the uncertainty or pain of the journey.

All relationships (animals and people) are ultimately about trust. For some animals like a playful puppy, trust comes almost instantly. For other, especially older animals, trust must be proven over a longer period of time. But when it is gained, the bond is lasting and precious.

On our farm, we have guard donkeys to help protect the sheep in the pasture from the forest predators. Their help, along with electric fences and bringing everyone in at night, has prevented predation of our sheep, and we’ve had sheep for 20 years now!

We gained our first guard donkey Belle by synchronicity. It was about 2004 or 5, and Kara was researching guard animals for the sheep. Should it be dogs or llamas? Then she learned about donkeys (full-sized ones, like smaller horses), and how their natural relationship with canines and large cats in the wild has equipped them well for defense. We were just thinking about looking into getting one, when we walked into the Co-op Feed Mill and were asked if we’d like a donkey!

Belle was looking for a new home, as her family was moving to a smaller place. Her parents had been wild rescues, and she was a bit of an “oops” love child that had been living with horses. Kara eventually said yes.

As far as donkeys go, Belle had an enormous head, with luminous dark eyes and ears long enough to qualify as her own sonar and radar detection service. At the time, she was the largest animal we had ever owned, and she arrived stand-offish and grumpy. Most animals don’t appreciate change, and transitioning from her old place to ours gave Belle plenty of change to think about.

We were accustomed to moving sheep on a lead and halter, but moving a donkey turned out to be a bit more of a challenge! I remember once bringing Belle in from the field when she kept crowding my personal space. As we rounded the corner, the woven wire stronghold fencing was to my left, the donkey to my right, and she pressed me into the fence and kept walking like she intended to grate me like cheese. I’m sure, in her own donkey mind, she was finding this very comical.

But over the years, Belle first softened to the sheep and then to us, breying when a lamb was born or at the sight or whiff of a predator. She liked Kara best, wanting scratches and pets, and she learned to love the new additions of equine that eventually joined the farm—Daisy a younger rescue donkey originally from Arizona, and Blue the paint horse from friends in Colorado.

The three became inseparable. Daisy adored Belle and cued from her how the farm worked and what was expected. Daisy and Blue would have playful running spats, chasing each other and kicking up their heels, but both treated with respect the now aging Belle, who opted to just plod along out to pasture instead of running anymore.

No one seemed quite certain how old Belle was when she came to our farm, but the best reckoning is that this year she was likely pushing 40 years old. Her coat was thinning (all winter she wore an insulated coat), her muscle tone shrinking, and her general appearance growing more fragile. She had trouble putting on or keeping weight, and she suffered from occasional bouts of colic. Kara would be out in the barn with her, helping coax her to walk to help the symptoms pass.

While sometimes donkeys will live to be 50 years old, we knew from Belle’s condition that the end was likely nearing. This last week, Kara went out to clean in the donkey and horse pen and found Belle colicky, uninterested in getting up. She worked her known routine of medicine to help with the pain, and urged Belle to rise and walk, which she eventually did. Belle walked and walked while Kara gently encouraged her. Blue and Daisy were both showing great concern, especially Daisy who was quite clingy.

For hours Kara was out there, soothing Belle and Daisy, cleaning the pen, and keeping watch. Belle would fluctuate from improvement to relapse, and that evening Kara called the vet for opinion or additional advice. A description of the situation proved our suspicions true—Belle’s time was near. Kara made the hard choice to make the appointment to put her down the next day, should she still be struggling, and returned to the barn.

Belle brayed when she saw Kara and wanted attention. She gave her some additional pain relief medicine, and all the equine got a good round of pets and scratches. In the morning, when she returned to the barn, Belle had passed in her sleep on her own terms, surrounded by her animal friends. We will always remember her and her service to the farm fondly. Hug your fur friends today. See you down on the farm sometime.