My Donkey Mostly Ignores Me. Here’s Why I Love Him Anyway

Humans have mistreated and abused donkeys for centuries. Puslinch’s Donkey Sanctuary is giving them a loving home—even if they aren't very loving.

Franco the DonkeyIllustration: Celia Krampien

For the love of Franco

Some people are predisposed to adore animals whose most affectionate moments could only be described as aloof. Yes, I’m a cat person. My cat, Anderson, generally treats me like garbage, and I love it.

My donkey, too, doesn’t like me. Or, rather, he doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about me. Franco lives with the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, an organization in Puslinch, Ont., that has a tract of rolling pasture surrounded by wetlands and hiking trails. In 2015, my husband sponsored Franco as a birthday gift for me. I have visited the sanctuary regularly since then, but Franco keeps his distance. He tolerates me from afar, looking at me with the same indifference as my cat staring dispassionately from the back of the sofa.

Because donkeys are part of the equine family, they have superficial similarities to horses: hooves, manes, long faces. But horses have a herd mentality while donkeys develop bonds with only a few friends—often other donkeys, sometimes horses and infrequently humans.

Before Franco, my only personal experience with a donkey was about 30  years ago when I was around six years old. Molly was a lovable miniature donkey who belonged to a family friend. We lived in rural Vermont, where we had horses, and Molly had come to briefly keep them company. Her owner took her back just when I was getting attached to her.

I didn’t know it back then, but donkeys come from the mountainous desert regions of North Africa. They were imported 500 years ago to North America, where they worked on railroads and in mining and farming. Now that technology is more common in agriculture and industry, they have largely lost their former purpose. These days, donkey milk is sold for exorbitant prices as a cosmetic and health product, as is a gelatin made from donkey skin for use in traditional Chinese medicine. In the 1990s, a miniature-donkey pet craze led to irresponsible breeding operations.

Another risk to donkeys is Canada’s natural environment: our grass is too high in simple sugars and starches for their digestive system, rain can cause health problems because their coats are not waterproof, and soft soil can harm hooves that are built for rocks and sand. As a result, if a donkey’s hooves are not trimmed regularly, they can grow, curl and crack—a life-threatening condition.

The growing number of donkeys in need of rescue is a constant challenge for shelters in North America; many animals arrive at shelters after being abandoned or mistreated. Puslinch’s Donkey Sanctuary, which has been in operation since 1992, is the “forever home” of about 100 equines, some of whom will live well into their forties. Staff members and dozens of volunteers monitor the animals’ eating and social habits. When one of them dies, surviving donkey friends are given private time with the body to process the passing. Sometimes, the volunteers tell me, mourning donkeys become so depressed they refuse to eat.

When I first visited the sanctuary four years ago, I walked into a paddock of docile animals milling around in pairs. I brushed some chubby miniature donkeys while taking in the scene: a central path and several large barns surrounded by pastures. A volunteer walked me over to a fenced-in area reserved for recuperating donkeys, and that’s where I first met Franco. He was being treated for a respiratory infection, and his normally fluffy coat had been shaved. I cooed over the fence, but Franco, who has been at the sanctuary for more than 20 years, kept his distance.

I’ve been back many times since. Franco is usually out of reach, enjoying the company of his pal Austin—another donkey, of course. So I pet and say hello to whomever is feeling friendly. It’s a quiet place, even with visitors around, the silence punctuated only by donkey song (a loud braying) and children’s delighted squeals. Standing there feels like a meditation and an apology: acknow­ledgment of a painful history and intention for a better way forward. I love all animals. No particular trait—not their sweet faces nor their capacity for social connection—makes donkeys more deserving of care. But they’ve been used, abused, neglected and displaced for centuries. It’s time we gave them a home.

Next, find out how photographing Alberta’s wild horses changed one woman’s life.

From “Meet, Bray, Love” by Frank Griggs, The Walrus (July/August 2019), thewalrus.ca.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada