Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ode to a Much-Loved Donkey

Hi Folks! Thanks for stopping by!

I was hoping to round out the year by telling you a charming story about how the mouse who lives in my house has set himself the task of carving new designs in my wooden knife handles, but that will have to wait. It is with deep regret that instead, I must report the death of my beloved donkey friend, Cricket.

I always considered Cricket the mascot of the barn where I volunteer. She was the only donkey in residence, and she was a cranky donkey as well, which made her locally famous as someone who might take a bite out of your ankle if the spirit so moved her. I'll never know why she had such a cantankerous personality - we have no way of knowing how she was treated before she came to the barn - but her unwillingness to make nice rendered her surprisingly endearing to all who knew her: Cricket lived life on her own terms, and if you didn't like it, tough beans!

Cricket came to the barn by way of Kenny the Tiger Guy. Kenny's a local fellow who rescues exotic animals. His lions and tigers require a LOT of food, and occasionally, people donate sick or dying horses for that purpose. In Cricket's case, from what I understand, her owners simply gave her up when it became apparent that she was not going to go along with their breeding plans. There wasn't one thing wrong with Cricket apart from being unwanted, and Kenny's a nice enough guy that he didn't want to destroy a perfectly healthy animal. So he called the barn, and the barn agreed to give her a good home.

In the five years since, Cricket wormed her way into the heart of every volunteer who met her. We all loved her, no matter how badly she treated us: if she was in a crabby mood and you were in her way, she would go through you, rather than around. She had a habit of simply - and literally - flicking you out of her way with her big, misshapen head. She didn't care about people's personal space, and she didn't care about manners, which made her far more interesting than the horses who always observed the social niceties. I think we all loved her precisely because she refused to play by the rules.

Her head was misshapen for a reason. No one knows why - she came to the barn that way. Barn owner Wendy, who has seen more animal cruelty than anyone would want to, always said she hoped the injury was an accident, rather than intentional, that perhaps a horse had accidentally kicked Cricket in the head and broken some bones in her face. The bones never healed properly, which created a large, unyielding lump around Cricket's left eye. Not only did the lump impair her vision in that eye, but in hindsight, I wonder now whether the injury caused her the sort of chronic pain that might have accounted for her dark moods.

Even when she wasn't crabby, Cricket was unpredictable. One sunny summer day, as Wendy cast about for some way to entertain the barn urchins, she suggested that we give Cricket a bath. Baths can be a tricky thing when you're trying to lather up thousand-pound animals. Some horses like the occasional bath, some don't. Wendy insisted - in a manner which suggested that she knew from previous experience - that the donkey liked baths, so we walked Cricket out in front of the barn and proceeded to hose her down.

It became clear quite quickly that Cricket did not, in fact, like baths at all. As I clung to her lead rope, she twisted and turned this way and that, trying to get away from the hose before finally bolting altogether and running off down the driveway, dragging me along behind her. Cricket didn't weigh a thousand pounds, but she weighed enough, and it took quite some doing to bring her under control. From that day on, the idea of giving Cricket a bath became a running joke at the barn. Whenever Wendy would try to reassure me about a jittery horse, I would retort, "Sure, and you said Cricket loved getting baths, too!"

One of my more memorable Cricket moments happened a couple years ago. She was being exceptionally crabby one Saturday - to the point where she actually refused a snack I offered her. Turning down a snack was unprecedented for Cricket - a thing that she herself must have realized because just a minute or two later, she tried to pin me up against a stall door. I knew what she was doing, trying to force a snack out of me, but I was unmoved at that point, and said rather loudly, "I already offered you one and you wouldn't take it!" Just as the sentence left my mouth, I looked up to see barn co-owner Ron walking toward us.

After all these years of being a Critter Lady, I'm accustomed to talking with animals. Be it cats or ducks or horses (or donkeys!), I'm confident that they understand my meaning, if not the actual words themselves. But in spite of all those years chatting with critters, I still find it very embarrassing to be overheard by humans! Just image my mortification then, when, the minute I admonished that greedy donkey, I turned around and saw that a human being had heard the whole thing!

I developed a habit, over the years, of loading up a fanny pack with horse snacks, and wearing the thing around the barn every Saturday. Snacks were doled out generously to all and sundry, with Cricket getting the most due to the fact that she rarely, if ever, wanted to go out in the paddock with the horses; she liked staying in the barn with us. Wendy didn't really approve of the fanny pack, and warned me, periodically, not to wander out among the horses with it. I understood: a herd of greedy thousand-pound animals could make mincemeat out of a puny human. But, to me, Cricket was a different story entirely.

Wendy would issue the occasional edict that Cricket was no longer to be hand-fed. Cricket had her own greed issues, and could be every bit as dangerous as a horse. I had seen this up close and personal once, when, on a rare day that she was in the paddock, Cricket reared up in my face. Ears pinned, teeth bared, front hooves flailing, she reared up several times, and I was alarmed by the fact that she was completely out of control. I literally dove between the strands of the electric fence in order to get away from her.

The incident frightened and puzzled me, but I must confess, it didn't stop me from plying her with snacks! To the last week of Cricket's life, I always had a snack ready for her. If Wendy was in the vicinity, I would put the treat on the ground in front of Cricket. If Wendy was elsewhere, I would pop the snack in her mouth with the comment, "Don't rat me out, Cricket!" Indeed, Cricket's love of snacks was so reliable that, the last time I saw her alive, and she refused all the treats I offered, I knew that something was very wrong. Four days later, she was gone.

It was my riding instructor, Connie, who called me with the news. They didn't know what caused Cricket's death, and in fact, even the subsequent necropsy provided no concrete cause of death. Wendy thought that there might have been an infection raging inside the donkey, but we'll never know for certain.

I was in the middle of dinner in a restaurant when the call came. Connie told me that there was time for me to come out to the barn and say good-bye before they buried Cricket, which is exactly what I did. A certain numbness overcame me as I tried to enjoy the rest of my meal, but as I drove through the darkness toward the barn, I allowed the fact of Cricket's passing to fully register, and the tears began to flow.

When I got to the barn, I asked Wendy what had happened. She told me that Cricket had walked out into the arena, laid down, and in less than 20 seconds, had died. She'd been feeling poorly for several days, not wanting to eat much, and running the opposite of a temperature - her body temperature was below the normal number for a donkey. Wendy said that, whatever had been wrong with Cricket, she hadn't suffered much in the way of pain; Wendy had dosed her fairly heavily with painkillers. She gestured to where Cricket lay in the arena and said, "Go be with her." Of all the humans I know, Wendy is one of the few who understand the need to spend some time with the animal's body, saying one's good-byes.

I sat down next to Cricket's head. I rubbed her face as I cried, resting my hand on her nose as I tried to take in the enormity of the loss. I stared down at her face, sending out into the universe the twin thoughts that I would love her - and miss her - forever, and hoping that she heard them. And, because she was no longer there to stop me, I did the one thing in death that she never let me do in life: I stroked her big, fuzzy, rabbity ears. She had always pulled away when I reached for them. Now, there was nothing she could do about it.

I sat with Cricket for quite some time. When I was finally ready to leave, I sought out Wendy, who was topping off the horses' water buckets. I nodded my understanding as she said, "I didn't sign on for this! I'm here to rescue them, not bury them!" Given that, in only a few short months, two horses - and now Cricket - had died, I knew what she meant; that it was simply too much for a heart to take.

I remarked to her the irony in my decision - made months ago - to make it a "donkey Christmas" for the urchins: each would, during our barn gift exchange, receive from me a framed picture of him or her standing next to Cricket. The pictures had been taken over a period of many months, on the rare occasions that the donkey had stood still long enough for me to get the shot. There was no way that any of us could have known that Cricket's time with us would be so limited. The "donkey Christmas" idea turned out to be a sad irony indeed.

The barn is extra quiet, now, without Cricket's unique braying. It was never much of a "hee haw," but rather more of a "chuff chuff chuff eeek-HAW!" I will especially miss the way she liked to keep me company while I cleaned stalls. She would come into the stall with me, and then proceed to block as much of the doorway as possible. She did this to all the urchins, as well, and they could frequently be heard complaining, "MOVE, Cricket!" Wendy dealt with the intrusions by threatening to put her in a stall out of the way of the workers if she didn't vacate the area voluntarily, but I always enjoyed Cricket's presence, and simply chose to work around her. If I couldn't get past her, I'd just stand there and scratch her back for a while. Cricket lived life on her own terms, and I saw no reason to insist that she do otherwise.

That's all for now, folks. May you all have a wonderful holiday season, with health, happiness, and the love of great critters in the new year! Until next time, please be kind to all the critters! And please leave a comment below so I know you were here!