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Becoming a donkey owner


  Me and Mr Momo

I live in a place where believe it or not, donkeys frequently crop up in conversations. People in bars talk of donkeys seeking homes much as folk in other parts try to find homes for litters of kittens. In this way some friends who live in a nearby village got a female donkey some years ago. Then someone offered them a male and they said “yeh alright then”, as you do.

She goes by the rather unfortunate name of Fanny and he’s called Matheu. Donkeys have a ridiculous libido and Matheu was constantly at it. In the end we had him castrated. Somewhat miraculously Momo was born exactly a year later. Donkeys have a very long gestation period. In fact if something takes a long time here people commonly say “shit, this is taking longer than a donkey’s pregnancy”. It sounds better in Spanish but also hints at how much donks figure in local culture. Anyway, Momo appears to be the result of Matheu’s last bonk. Almost two years later and we found ourselves back in the same hole as it were. Only this time Momo had the slightly Oedipal complex of suckling and bonking his mother. It had to stop! So, he too was castrated. Rather a grim process and I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say that while it is easy to anthropomorphize about keeping male donkeys intact, it is without doubt a necessary procedure. Stallions, or “Jacks” are insatiable and quite capable of killing mares (“Jennies”) with their amorous intentions. Geldings are calmer and considerably more biddable when it comes to handling them.

Momo when he was a few months old

Fanny and Matheu had been living the life of Riley for several years with my friends. They over winter in my friends paddock and spend the summer roaming free in the hills with a herd of potxokas. These latter are a Basque breed of horses reared for meat. I know, folks from other cultures are a bit thrown by the concept of eating horse but I have come to think that if you are going to eat meat then you should at least ensure that it comes from animals that have lived well. Potxokas live wild and free and their meat is said to be very healthy. I stopped eating meat long ago and my name Philip, translates from Greek (Philipus) as “Lover of horses” so I ain’t going to eat one.

My friends were reluctant to continue with three donkeys and began to enquire about a new home for Momo. “Aye, allright then, I’ll have him”, I offered in a moment of rashness and romanticism.


Fanny, Matheu and Momo

Family group, Fanny, Matheu and Momo

There followed a certain amount of logistics and arrangements. I had to register officially as a livestock farmer then arrange for the vet to come and have him tagged with a chip and castrated. The day of “the big chop” Momo had to be confined in his stable and fasted. This was where I discovered that while donkeys are infamously stubborn and tend easily to say “nope, no way will I do that” they can be equally determined to do exactly as they please. In this case the issue was keeping Momo confined in his stable. Momo made short shrift of the barricade we placed in the entrance. We replaced it with something more substantial but he just vaulted the back wall and was back with his mum and dad munching grass in no time.



A week after his operation all three had to be brought down to my paddock where they would be introduced to the three horses that live there. The two kilometre trek was a trial. Three semi feral donkeys and abundant spring grass to provoke frequent stops. I make no pretence of being any kind of “donkey whisperer” and am capable of great errors. I made the near fatal mistake of knotting Momo’s leash with Fanny’s. Knotting mother and son together worked well for a while. He tends to follow his mum and therefore went wherever she pulled. Then something startled someone and they were off. Three stampeding “burros”, two of which were joined with a rope. Fanny set off down a slope bound for the green barley shoots. Momo went somewhere else and suddenly Fanny was tits up in a ditch. I really thought I’d killed her!

We eventually got them all down to my home village of Leorza where there was an altercation with a dog and then a fight with the three horses they will be sharing the field with. What on earth had I let myself in for?


Momo’s new family

In the following days I had them in my garden for periods during the day and they did a great job mowing the grass. So much better than the strimmer which is noisy, uses petrol and doesn’t produce organic fertiliser. With a mind to introducing Momo gently to the idea of independence I tried keeping him separate from his mum for a few hours at a time.

Hopeless. He spent the time braying mournfully at his mother who did likewise. It was extremely noisy! Even noisier than the strimmer!

The following day there was nothing left for it.


Momo was locked in the stable for the following three days against his inevitable bid for freedom.  The first three nights Momo brayed bailfully at precisely four thirty am. Then he just seemed to accept his lot and mucked in with the other three horses. Well, “mucked in” isn’t really accurate. The three horses are always together with their prima donna airs, gossiping over the hay trough while Momo strikes a solitary figure. Nonetheless, he’s with them. Donkeys are herd animals and need company of some sort, preferably equine.


Applying some simple donkey psychology I figured that those first few days of separation from his mother would provide a window of opportunity in which I could form a bond with him. Daily visits, lots of brushing, short walks and small rewards in the form of dry bread and visits to fields of green stuff.


A battle of wills

Those initial treks were a battle of wills and we spent a lot of time looking at each other from either end of a tight rope. But he changed from one day to the next and now trots happily or rather ploddingly, by my side. He takes a while to warm up but when he gets going doesn’t need to be led. Now we venture deep into the hills, ascend rocky peaks and jog down steep tracks. He was born in these mountains and is rarely phased by obstacles such as creeks which he leaps in a bound.


Kitted up and ready for action

Looks like this particular journey has only just begun and as Robert Louis Stevenson, another Scotsman who travelled with a donkey said, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

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