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July/August 2012

One Donkey – Our time with Beverly

Of all the animals on our farm, the most popular is a grey and white donkey named Beverly. She’s a Sicilian, we think, though her breeding, like much of her past, is hazy. She came to us five years ago. We suspect she was born on the local donkey farm run by the wonderful and now deceased Mrs. Schalke, a former Prussian aristocrat whose family lost their estate, which included both donkeys and servants, to the Russians in 1945. Broke and landless, Mrs. Schalke made her way to the rocky shores of Vancouver Island and rebuilt some semblance of her former life. She couldn’t afford servants but she had a lot of donkeys.

In return for some small favour I did for Mrs. Schalke she named one, a dark jack, after me. Oddly, the one time I met Tom Henry I didn’t like him. I have no idea where he is now.

We suspect Beverly came from Mrs. Schalke’s farm because she is imbued with the spirit of aristocracy. She is self-possessed, happy to pass her time alone in a paddock. When put in with sheep, she immediately takes control, marshalling the flock from one part of the pasture to another according to her own organizational imperatives. I think her ideal is to have them grazing smallest to largest. She is happiest when perched above the flock on a grassy knoll, overseeing her charges.

Perhaps it is Beverly’s standoffishness that makes her so popular. Whatever the reason, on weekends people drive from the city to our farm just to see her. When we move her to another field they demand to know when she’ll be back. They could care less about the piglets and lambs, they want to see Beverly. It is as if the humble donkey, the lowly ass of the Bible, for centuries used to take people on pilgrimages in places like Palestine, is now the object of pilgrimage herself.

For us, though, it is Beverly’s sense of noblesse oblige—with privilege comes responsibility—that makes her so endearing. Though kind of hapless looking—think of a 45 gallon drum mounted horizontally on two wooden sawhorses and you’ve pretty much got the picture—she is absolutely fearless in taking on strange dogs that venture in with the flock. It must be her sense of duty. While the sheep run in panic, Beverly goes after the dog with teeth barred. If she catches up with the dog she takes out its legs with a deft swipe of her front foot, then jumps on it as if it were a trampoline.

At the same time Beverley can show incredible compassion. Essentially a hater of men (she must have been beaten at some point) Beverly allows few men to get close to her. So when a long-time family friend announced that it was the wish of her boisterous, middle-aged, mentally handicapped son to pet Beverly, I saw trouble. She had not met Bruce before, and usually when a strange man comes, Beverly goes; if the man is loud, as Bruce can be, she goes even faster. Yet when Bruce walked down in the field to find her, calling her by name, she trotted up as if to an old friend. She presented herself this way and that for petting, first on one flank, then on the other, not just tolerant of his vigourous affection but clearly enjoying it. When Bruce was done she followed him to the gate, as if to see him off safely.

According to Wikipedia there are more than 40 million donkeys in the world. But I suspect Beverly is in a class to herself.