Over the past 11 years since I’ve been living in Spain, I’ve acquired one husband, two children, and two dogs (in that order). Now our family has grown again, with a new arrival – a baby donkey.
It’s a long story – isn’t it always? We were out for a walk with the dogs one sunny Sunday afternoon, and we came across a donkey, as you do. It wasn’t tethered, it didn’t have any food or water, and looked pretty sad and lonely, if in good health and well-fed. As it was a hot day we decided to take it home to give it some water, at least.
Luckily we had a fenced off area of our large garden which had been used for growing vegetables, but was currently abandoned and overgrown. So in went Lucero, as the kids christened our new four-legged friend, and we went out to buy him a halter and some food. Lucero was a quiet, calm animal, male but not “whole” as they euphemistically describe it. Right from the start, I made it clear to Zac (8) and Lola (5) that the donkey wasn’t ours to keep, that someone would come and collect him and take him home soon, that we were just looking after him.
Their dad took them out for rides on Lucero in the olive field next door. The donkey nuzzled them and followed them about – I had never realised these gentle creatures were so affectionate. Before long Zac and Lola were donkey-doped, hooked on this furry creature the same height as them, with soft, kind eyes and nibbly lips. Zac, who is a typically bouncy and active eight-year-old, spent hours in his enclosure just talking to the animal and being with him.
Inevitably, given that everyone around here knows everyone else and their animals, word got back to the owner that we were looking after his beast, Pepe. He came to collect Lucero/Pepe on the Wednesday night, when the kids had just been out for a ride on him. Who would have thought that in just four days (three of them spent at school) two small children would become so strongly attached to a burro? They were both inconsolable when Lucero was loaded up to be taken back home.
The owner stayed chatting to my husband for while, and I had to ask him abruptly to go, losing my usual excessive British politeness (Not “I say old chap, would you mind awfully slinging your hook, the nippers are a little upset”, but “LEAVE NOW!”) as they were prolonging the painful agony of farewell for my weeping, desperate children, something no parent can cope with well.
Men are often a softer touch as fathers, in my experience (“Daaaad, Mum won’t let me watch TV/have some biscuits/buy a PlayStation – pleeeeease, go on, can I, pleeeease?”) and my husband couldn’t bear to see his darling niños in a state of such abject misery. So what did he do? He promised to get them their own donkey, of course. Dentro de poco (very soon). And so it all began.
He found someone among his wide circle of friends and acquaintances who had a young donkey ready to be separated from his mother. They arranged a barter deal and along came Polly. A *male* donkey. He’s now called Bolly.
Young donkeys can be nervous, a little aggressive, unpredictable, very affectionate and full of energy. Bolly is all of those things. He loves playing with the dogs, although the pecking order is still being established as our Labrador is always convinced he’s top dog – as he told the small dog in no uncertain terms soon after he arrived (having been passed on by two families). The small dog was found by my husband when he was a week old – the only survivor of an abandoned bitch with her litter of puppies.
I am learning fast about donkey behaviour, making lots of mistakes, and trying to be a good donkey owner. My husband is more instinctive, having had animals as a child (we had small dogs, hamster and guinea pig). The children ride Bolly bareback (on a leading rein), and they’re all getting used to this new experience. Like anything with a new animals, it’s not always a smooth ride. Bolly likes playing tug of war with the lab, whose old, deflated football, the toy he arrived with a year and a half ago, is used as the tugged thing. They chase each other around the garden. It’s not always good natured, and there are plenty of tellings-off, so we’re constantly on our guard for animal shenanigans.
One friend who knows lots about horses and lives in rural France has been a huge source of advice and support, suggesting books and videos about donkey behaviour. They are very intelligent creatures, she told me – yes, they’re famous for being stubborn, but that’s just because they take time to process information and then make a decision. Horses are faster to decide.
Soon after Bolly arrived, with extraordinarily good timing, I was told about a local livestock fair called Una Parada en Gines, in the next town from here, with oxen, horses and, yes, donkeys. Races, pulling contests, dressage… live music, bars, food…girls in feria dresses, a colouring/in tent… your typical Spanish town fair. One morning, a young man doing a PhD in donkey behaviour came to do a donkey meet-and-greet with small children from local primary schools, so I took the opportunity to fire some questions at him, which he answered very good naturedly. Bolly might still be anxious from being separated from his mother, he told us, so we should be patient with him.
I didn’t much like seeing the donkeys, including tiny miniature ones, squashed together in small pens, but I suppose that’s what happens at these fairs. It was interesting to see the different breeds – I worked out that Bolly is a Catalan donkey.
It’s a steep learning curve for the whole family – kicking, biting, head-butting v hugs and gentle body contact (leaning in) – but we’re getting there.