Thank God for Donkeys

I found Zipper this morning. He was laying on his side in the donkey shelter. His eyes were hazed over, and his tummy was bloated. He had been gone for quite a while; he likely passed shortly after chores last night. How could this big, strong, beautiful donkey be gone in just a flash? A flash for me, probably hours of anguish for him. I didn’t know he was in trouble. I didn’t know.

Zipper was a birthday present in August 2012. We wanted another Mammoth riding donkey. I had been riding our Mammoth, Chewbakkah (A.K.A. Chewie) — but always by myself since we only had the one riding donkey. In fact, I had been riding my donkey so much that I put my motorcycle up for sale. Since Scott and I’s time together riding our motorcycles had diminished, we wanted another riding donkey in order to spend time together in the saddle. We found Zipper for sale online and drove several hours one-way to get him.

When we pulled up to his former home, the silver, speckled, Mammoth stood in a pen with a bunch of miniature donkeys. His keepers were young children who gave him treats hand over fist. He was a bit rotten in that regard and he never quite got over his expectation that every hand contained a treat.

Scott wanted to saddle him and take him for a “test ride.” Once saddled, Zipper laid down. He just laid right down on the ground. “Quite the riding donkey” we thought and began to wonder if we had traveled all that way for naught.

Once we got Zipper back up on all fours, Scott determined that Zipper had, indeed, been taught to be a riding donkey and we agreed to the sale. The previous owners had a fancy leather halter on Zipper and that’s what he was wearing when we led him to the trailer to load him for the long trip home. Once we arrived at the door of the trailer, Zipper balked. His body language sent the message loud and clear: He was not going to load into that trailer.

We pulled and the previous owners pushed. At one point it looked like Zipper would have his way. The fancy leather halter snapped, shredding like a piece of thread. It was only after a price reduction that we continued to try to convince him to load. After much human exertion and even some not-so-nice forms of human-to-donkey communication, Zipper eventually wound up in the trailer and we were on our way home to Alpine.

Once home, Zipper was introduced to D.D. Donkey, her nearly 2-year old foal Pumpkin, and Chewie, the other riding donk. There was a little bit of jostling for the alpha position, but all of that passed quickly and the four came together as a herd quite nicely with the youngest, Pumpkin, taking the role of most bossy. Zipper acquiesced to Pumpkin and the two of them became obvious friends, closer to each other than any of the others.

Just a few months after he arrived, one evening in October we were saddling the donks. Chewie’s saddle had been placed on his back; Zipper was not yet tied. Something spooked Chewie (the calmest donkey to ever live at Wassermann Wranch). As Chewie took off, the saddle flopped wildly — it had only been partially cinched. The sight of the flapping saddle then spooked Zipper. Driven by adrenaline, Chewie managed to stop just short of the fence. Zipper, however, ran right through it. We caught him shortly, he didn’t go far at all, but he was bleeding profusely. He had gashed his head; the fur on his forehead peeled away making his skull bone visible.

The mobile vet was called, and Zipper received stitches that night — lots of stitches. Scott had the job of holding up the head of the tranquilized Mammoth donkey. It was an exhausting job because that Mammoth head was heavy. Zipper’s gash healed without issue. He didn’t even have a visible scar. And he nor Chewie ever spooked like that again. In a way, I think the incident became a bonding experience where Zipper discovered that we would look out for him and take care of him, that there was nothing to fear at Wassermann Wranch. Instead of that incident leaving him with a bad memory, it seemed to make us his and the trust grew.

Zipper became much, much better at loading into the trailer. We found that if we led him to the door of the trailer and gave him time, time to look at the inside of the trailer, and time to see that it didn’t contain any donkey-eating monsters, he would happily step up — usually within five minutes. Sometimes humans don’t want to give donkeys time to see for themselves that there isn’t any danger. That’s when donkeys balk. That’s why donkeys have a reputation for being stubborn. They aren’t stubborn. Donkeys are cautious. There are stories about people listening to donkeys who suddenly stopped in their tracks. Those stories usually end with the human life being saved thanks to donkey’s cautious insistence.

Zipper and I would load up and go to the ranch of my friend, Cinda, where we would ride our donkeys together in the wide-open spaces south of Marfa. Those are beautiful memories; sweet moments in the saddle, talking and laughing in the sunshine. Cinda and I call ourselves Donkey Chicks — we appreciate the unique qualities of donkeys: The loyalty, the patience, the intelligence, and those beautiful long ears.

Beautiful Zipper also gave hundreds of children the gift of a ride on his back. I don’t know how many children have had their first ride on an equine atop Zipper. Chewie, being over thirty years old, was retired from riding. That means Zipper had to pick up all the slack — and he had a nearly perfect record. There was just one incident during his time giving rides in which a child fell off and broke her arm. Thinking back on that incident, I believe it unfolded the way it did because the child was so relaxed during her ride. She felt safe in the saddle and wasn’t hanging on tightly when Zipper elected to take just a couple of quick side steps. It was an odd, unexplained, moment that sent that poor child to the emergency room. It was a sad day because pain is not what we want the children who visit Wassermann Wranch to experience. However, I never blamed Zipper. I can say that I learned from that experience and afterward I always asked kids to hang on tightly while in the saddle.

Life is that way, isn’t it? We walk a fine line between holding on tightly and relaxing and letting go.

Sometimes kids were afraid to ride, after all, Zipper was a Mammoth standing 14 hands high. When sitting on Zip those little kids were suddenly on top of the world — something that was unsettling for some children. Others found the experience exhilarating. I saw it happen more than once. A child would be lifted and placed in the saddle and a light would come on in their eyes. When Zipper took a step and the child felt the huge animal move a wondrous look would come over their face and a smile that stretched ear-to-ear would break out.

Equally as exciting to me were the times fearful children would lean into the process. Even though they were afraid, instead of demanding to get off Zipper’s back, they would trust the process and remain seated for “just one step.” When they understood what it was like to feel Zipper move, they would trust again for just a few more steps. When they were ready, Zipper was led a short distance. The anxiety did not always disappear during those rides, but upon returning to the starting point the child could dismount knowing they had just stuck with something that was difficult. I always hoped they were better for the experience. Hopefully they gained a lesson about sticking with something through the fear and coming out the other side.

I can’t believe Zipper is gone, and I don’t know what Wassermann Wranch will be like without him. We haven’t been doing any donkey rides since the COVID shutdown, but I know there are kids who will ask. At Christmas time, Zipper had accompanied Chewie to our town’s live nativity. Chewie has carried Mary for the last ten years, and since he’s getting up there in years, we thought it was time for Zipper to be introduced to the event. While Zipper didn’t get on “stage” this year, he seemed to enjoy being there and I knew he was ready to take over for Chewie when the time came. We didn’t know that Zipper would be the one whose time was short.

Zipper was a quiet, laid-back donkey. He always wanted treats and he could be grabby about getting them from your hand. He worked hard when asked. He was beautiful — I called him a silver-dappled donkey. I wish I knew what caused his death — it was so sudden. We may never be able to figure it out. I’m crying as I write this. I love donkeys so much — I value their unique characteristics, I see their personalities — all of them different. They are considered throw-away animals by so many, but I see them as so incredibly valuable, full of life-lessons, loyalty, and love. I learned so much from Zipper — and I will be a better donkey chick because of my time with him.

Scott said Chewie was watching me as we walked through the barn yard to say our goodbyes to Zipper. Chewie is so sensitive and knows when people are hurting.

We got our first donkey in 2010, and we went an entire decade without feeling this pain. I’m willing to feel grief in order to experience all that I have with donkeys. I guess I needed to sit down and write this out so that I could get to this point, so that I could figure out I’m still willing. Thank God for donkeys. Please, God, take care of Zipper — and watch your fingers, he’s kinda grabby about taking treats.