The donkey has been used as a working animal for at least 5000 years. There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals. Working donkeys are often associated with those living at or below subsistence levels. Small numbers of donkeys are kept for breeding or as pets in developed countries
As the world reels, as terrorists perpetrate atrocities on Easter Sunday, a Christian Holy Day, and the regime in Washington continues unabated with an anti-Christ at the helm, and Passover has passed, I wondered what to do to raise our secular spirits and remembered what I'd read a while back in a New York Times article about a "donkey park," in Ulster Park, NY, not far from where we live in New Paltz.
It was cool and cloudy, all the blossoms out after a day of heavy rain. A short ride down a long, quiet highway, the windows wide open, and when we arrived at the enclosure a small crowd of adults and children were standing among the donkeys, donkeys of all sizes, standard and mini. Although people were talking quietly to one another, and a few were brushing the donkeys, the animals made no sound and the air was oddly still, as it is in church, or in a canoe on a calm mountain lake. Sacred animals, tender and gentle animals, protective spirits from the antique world in my writer's imagination, they carry 5,000 years of history in their genes.
The donkeys walked around, they trotted a bit, they kept their noses to the ground eating hay, they seemed to enjoy having the back of their very, very long ears rubbed and their thick winter pelts brushed. "Their bellies are really soft," Carol, one of the volunteers told us. "But if you see them raise their tails, best move aside. They are about to poop," her husband, Larry, said. Carol and Larry live down the road and have been volunteering at the park for three years. They seemed comfortable in the enclosure, and were also eager to talk about two larger equines—a mule and a zonkey. The thought of cross-breeding a zebra with a donkey was a bit chilling, I'm not sure why. The large beast, not friendly exactly, not unfriendly, had stripes at the bottom of his long legs and looked more like a horse than a donkey. Not surprisingly, he was called Stripes. And there was a mule, too, which, by definition is a hybrid of a horse and a donkey, and therefore cannot reproduce, we were told. Perhaps that is for the best, I thought. Again, I'm not sure why. Maybe the deliberate manipulation feels unnatural, unlike the hybridization of plants, which we hardly notice, or the raising of animals for slaughter, which we do notice and question, if we are so inclined.
Stories about donkeys are plentiful in the Bible, in children's books, in mythology and fiction. The donkey can often seem ridiculous and is sometimes treated unkindly by storytellers—Pinocchio, for example. But I don't think of them as ridiculous creatures. When I told my colleague, Deb, at the SUNY Ulster Writing Center about our plans for a Jewish Easter Ecumenical Sunday—if that is not an oxymoron—she told me the story about Mary carrying Baby Jesus into the manger on a donkey. "That's why donkeys have crosses on their backs," she said. And, sure enough, they do. I snapped a picture of a donkey's back and sent it to her via a modern apparatus, the iPhone.
Check out the Donkey Park website: www.donkeypark.org