Yesterday, we announced the arrival of Abuela, a 40-year-old donkey who was abandoned along with three other donkeys many years ago on a plot of private land. All four of them were rescued at the beginning of August thanks to the involvement of Arizona Equine Rescue Organization and Triple R Horse Rescue.
I kept yesterday’s post short and sweet (sorta?) as not to overwhelm you all with a saga of a narrative that took place over the course of three weeks.
The story, though, is worth telling. It highlights just some of the crazy things those in equine rescue see and the complexity of rescue efforts. Above all, I think, it emphasizes the power of one individual. As you’ll read, just one person can change the course of innocent lives.
So grab a coffee and a donut or something and settle in, because this is a long one.
On July 27th, Tierra Madre got an email from a lady who works for a company. I’m bound to confidentiality here, so we’ll get super clever and call this company Company.
Company houses employees on rather obscure land to watch over certain components of their work. Over ten years ago, at one the sites at which Company keeps employees to watch over the way of their business, an employee brought his four donkeys to live with him.
The property, for a bit of scene-setting, is in the middle of private land only accessible by employees of Company. There are one or two houses within the land, some small, fenced in grassy areas next to the homes, and alongside one of the houses is an enclosed 12-acre lot upon which the employee let his donkeys roam while he worked in the house. This 12-acre lot consists of thick mesquite trees that created several acres of shade, palo verdes, desert brush, an occasional cactus, and – on the very edge of the property closest to the house – a concrete tub of water hooked up to an automatic system.
Anyway, over ten years ago, this Company employee moved off the land and left his donkeys on this lot.
The next Company employee to live at the house seemingly cared for the donkeys. Over time, she trained them to walk from wherever they were hiding on the huge plot of land to the front of the gates, by the employee house, whenever she rung a bell that she’d placed over their automatic waterer.
While these four donkeys were left to themselves most of the time, this employee would occasionally feed them carrots or treats and – I hope – give them some decent human interaction.
After some time that employee left too. And the donkeys were left to survive on their own for many years.
They ate the mesquite pods (which they loved since they’re pure sugar) and the palo verde leaves. They drank out of an increasingly filthy water tub. They truly only had each other. Even now that the donkeys are safe, I still imagine them huddling together at night under the stars, keeping each other company as they slept.
Now, the lady who contacted Tierra Madre at the end of July has worked for Company for years. We’ll call her Angel, because she truly is one.
The big boss at Company informed Angel and the other employees who frequented the area around the employee house that the donkeys kept to themselves and didn’t need to be bothered. “They eat whatever’s out there in the desert,” he apparently told Angel, referring to the mesquite seed pods and leaves. “They’ve lived on their own for years. They’re fine.”
But Angel, despite not knowing about donkeys or any equines for that matter, got a glance at the donkeys from far away and became concerned about them. She thought at one point she saw that one of them had curled up feet. Despite her boss’s insistence that the donkeys were fine and the nonchalant attitude of her fellow employees, she looked up horse sanctuaries and rescues, found us, shot us an email, and asked if anyone could help four donkeys in what was truly a sticky situation. She wasn’t totally sure if they needed to be rescued, she said in her email, but after knowing that no one was caring for them anymore, she wanted to make sure they truly were fine, as the Company boss said.
After reading her email, I called Angel as soon as I could and ended up talking to her for over an hour. We talked about her work, the Company land, her role at Company, the donkeys… bless that lady for her patience! I asked questions about their weight, their poop, their feet…you name it. She answered as best she could.
I got to know what truly is a genuine and kind person, but I also learned that besides being involved in some sticky work politics at Company, Angel risked losing her job if she made a fuss about the donkeys, or called in the media or a rescue team, or accused her boss of neglecting them. The problem was that the boss was technically responsible for them as he was in charge of Company, and for us to do anything at all, the boss would have to sign them over to Tierra Madre. Otherwise, we’d have to go through the Arizona Department of Agriculture and file them in as strays, which would mean trouble. And Angel had to stay in Company’s good graces so she could keep putting food on her table.
“We’re going to have to be very discreet about this,” I told Angel as I sat in my car talking to her on the phone that night, “but I want to go look at the donkeys myself. Is there any way I can get on that property to see them?”
She got quiet, but only for a moment. “Here’s what we’ll do,” she said. “Can you meet me at my house? I have to unlock the gates to get us in. They know my car, they’ll know it’s just me. If you were to drive behind—”
“It’d look suspicious,” I said. “Totally get it.”
“But if you were driving with me, I could say I have a friend with me and we’re just going to give carrots to the donkeys.”
We made a plan to do just this the next day, a Friday, and she ran it by another employee who okayed the plan. And so, just over 12 hours later, I found myself being driven on a rickety road to the middle of nowhere, onto private, gated property with nothing around us but wild desert.
Earlier that morning I’d talked to the lady who runs our network of rescues and sanctuaries in Arizona, who began putting a plan in motion to find someone who could both haul and take the donkeys once we got the okay from the Company boss, somehow. I’d been instructed to find out whether they were jacks or jennies and what condition they were in. As someone who runs a sanctuary, see, I had no idea how a rescue worked.
After a 25-minute drive into the desert, Angel and I pulled up to the house for Company employees, which was being renovated or something for the next employee to live there. By the time we got to the property, it was around 11am, humid, and hotter than hell.
“So there’s the entrance to the lot,” Angel said as she parked the car. We got out, grabbed the carrots, and as we started walking, she pointed past the small, enclosed area that made up what was essentially the house’s back yard to wild land that disappeared into the mesquite trees in the distance. “They’re never up by the gate, they’re usually hiding…”
“Is that the water?” I asked, spotting a concrete tub right by the fence separating the backyard from the 12 acres of desert. She nodded.
“And that’s the bell that’s on top, there. We’ll ring that first… it usually takes them about ten or fifteen minutes to walk up….”
I looked at their water and recoiled. It was green, with slimy sides and thick layers of algae floating on top along with dirt, dead bugs, and god knew what else. If I’d put my hand under the slime it would have vanished. The Roman Baths were cleaner.
I turned to Angel, who looked disgusted.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” I said. “This is their only water?”
“I think so,” she replied. “And it actually looks cleaner than it did the last time I saw it. They must have put bleach in it or something.”
I bit back a furious stream of swearing and instead took my phone out and took some pictures while Angel rung the bell. “I’m glad to hear you say it’s bad,” she told me. “[Company boss] told all of us the donkeys were fine. I just didn’t think they were.”
“You definitely did the right thing, contacting us,” I said, and I meant it. “Can we hop the fence?”
We hopped the fence, then we waited. Angel had said it could take up to ten or fifteen minutes for the donkeys to get to the front of the lot after hearing the bell, but I was too impatient to find them and started climbing through the trees after a few minutes. Angel, bless her, walked with me.
We only had to walk for ten minutes. While in a patch of trees that were spread far enough apart for me to stand up straight (other areas of the land involved walking hunched over as to not scrape our heads), I spotted two of the donks.
The first one I saw was a shaggy brown. Even from a distance I could tell she was extremely overweight, but incredibly sweet. She approached us softly, big fluffy ears swiveling around her to catch all sounds, while her companion, a gray jenny, crept up slowly behind her.
After a few more minutes, a third jenny – a darker brown, almost black – approached us too. She was their leader, clearly, and was more used to humans as she was more forthright in her asking for carrots. This darkest one was so overweight that her fat patches were actually distorting her crest. Later, when I studied their poop, I saw the mesquite pods in the manure and concluded that the donkeys could eat all day, every day, without being stopped, and had become grossly overweight as a result.
I pointed out these fat patches to Angel and explained a little bit about basic equine care – dentals, annual shots against diseases, proper exercise and diet – and told her that the donks needed medical attention. At the time, I was worried that the darkest donkey had a tumor on her neck, but later I’d learn from Curry at Triple R that donkeys grew fat patches there and despite the lumps looking like tumors, they were really just lumps of fat.
Which is why I felt guilty giving them a few carrots as we studied the three of them. Their hooves for the most part actually looked pretty decent, as they’d worn down naturally over time as the donkeys walked around on the hard terrain. After another ten minutes or so, however, it became apparent there was another problem.
“There are only three donkeys here,” I said to Angel, who was cautiously patting the shaggy brown jenny. “Isn’t there a fourth?”
Angel nodded, eyes wide. “There were four just last week. I saw them from a distance, and that was the one whose feet looked bad, really bad…”
We searched for an hour. We waded through thick mesquite trees, blinking sweat out of our eyes, cooing lightly in the hopes that we could coax out the fourth from hiding. The darkest jenny, who I nicknamed S’More, followed us, hoping for more carrots.
Finally, unable to climb more through the thicket of sharp branches, we decided to end the search. We were nearly out of water, it was past noon, it was over 100 degrees, and it was only going to get hotter.
“We need to get them out of here,” I panted to Angel as we finally stumbled out of the mesquite trees towards the entrance of the lot some time later. “They’ve survived on their own this far, but their health’s only going to get worse. And we don’t even know the condition of the fourth.”
Angel nodded. “I had a feeling you’d say that.”
We started talking about getting the boss of Company to agree to sign them over as we got to the edge of the property, where the well of slime and algae awaited. I threw the empty bags of carrots over the fence and our now empty water bottles and made to jump out while Angel (wisely) walked around to open up the gate. Before I hopped the fence again, I looked over and saw S’More, our little follower, standing nearby and blinking at me.
I walked over and gave her a few pats on the neck. The other two – the shaggy brown Jenny I nicknamed Snickers and the gray I’d started calling CC (Cookies-n-Cream) – hung back, looking at us.
“We’re coming back for you,” I whispered to S’More. Her ears twitched as she listened. “Hang in there. We’re coming back.”
One week later, on August 4th, through the absolutely amazing network of which Tierra Madre is a part, we arranged to have Arizona Equine Rescue Organization drive two trailers out to the property and take them up to Triple R Horse Rescue, who would care for them until the donkeys could find homes. Originally, the plan was to drive them out of state to a donkey rescue in Texas, but that plan was scraped after only a few days.
Angel met me at the entrance to the property around 11. The plan was for us to go to the property a little bit before AERO arrived so we could ring the bell and get the donkeys up into the smaller, enclosed ‘backyard’ pen by the house so they’d be easier to round up and walk into the trailer. I’d brought Bermuda, treats, and halters for this. Then, Angel would drive back to the gate to unlock it for AERO then bring them to the donkeys, who would be haltered and ready to go.
Oh, if only I’d known then about the stubbornness of donkeys. The first part of the plan worked out great. The second, not so much.
Anyway, Angel and I got to the lot and rung the bell right on schedule. The three young donkeys we’d seen the first time walked right up. S’More came first. The bonded pair – Snickers and CC – walked up next.
I put the Bermuda I’d brought on the ground in the smaller, enclosed pen. Angel had opened up the gate to the big backyard to the 12 acre lot, and they waltzed right in without looking back.
Just as I was about to open my mouth and lament the absence of the fourth and voice my fear that something had happened… suddenly, from the shadows of the mesquite trees and the brush, came the fourth little girl.
She crept quietly, walking gingerly, looking around her with a softness and an acceptance that blew me away.
She was old. She was little, smaller than the other three by far. The others were fat; she was skinny. And her feet were in absolutely horrendous shape.
I stood in shock for a minute, just looking at her. She looked back at me, blinking.
“She came!” squealed Angel, coming up behind me. “I was so worried, too!”
“She came,” I repeated, still horrified. I pointed to her feet. “Angel. I am so, so glad you did what you did.”
Angel gasped, seeing the donkey’s feet. “I thought they looked bad, but up close they look even worse.”
I nodded. I was too angry to speak. I approached the donkey quietly and showed her the halter in my hand. She stood there, motionless, and let me put the halter on her face without objection.
Two or three maintenance workers of some sort were off in the distance, doing some work to the house some fifty feet away. I barked at them to fill a bowl with water and bring it out. And while Angel went to help them find water that wasn’t swimming in a million species of bacteria, I put my arms around the sweet donkey’s neck and put my face in her mane. “I’m sorry,” was what I could choke out. “I’m so sorry, little girl. We’re gonna make you better.”
Angel came running with a bucket of water and held it out to the older jenny. That little girl gulped down every last drop so Angel went back for more. And during this process of getting her water as well as putting some down for the other three donkeys in the smaller pen, we got the older girl into the smaller pen too and shut the gate, trapping them inside.
Eventually two volunteers from Arizona Equine Rescue Organization – T and B (not sure if they want their names on social media so we’ll leave it at initials!) – brought their trailers and we began the process of rounding up the donkeys… only we never finished it.
Four hours.
We herded those donkeys for four hours.
S’More we were able to halter with relative ease. As she was the most used to people, she let us put a halter on her with no problem. We tied her to the fence in a quick-release knot so she’d be ready to go once we got the other two.
Snickers and CC, on the other hand, were not interested in going into a big metal box on wheels after living for ten years out in the open wilderness and expressed this disdain by treating us to a long, fun game of donkey tag.
At first the mission was just to halter them. T and I herded the two of them from one end of the yard to the other as they moved away from us at every turn, turning their butts then charging past us, creeping slowly to get the treats out of our hands one moment then turning on a dime to get away the next.
We tried to use a human shield to keep them in a corner long enough to halter at least one of them, but they broke through it each time. We tried putting the halters down at one point and just leaving them alone for a while, but the moment we picked the halters back up all hell broke loose again.
You name it, we tried it.
Finally, something like two and a half hours in, we managed to get a halter onto Snickers after T, Angel, and I got her in a corner and B managed to keep up with her flailing while haltering at the same time (some seriously impressive work on B’s part). One of the maintenance workers joined the fun for twenty minutes or so and – while trying to halter CC – demonstrated what could only be described as a donkey rodeo as CC spun and bucked and kicked and he bounced up and down with her. It ended with him finally getting knocked down and the halter flying across the yard and all of us running – cursing – after the donkey yet again, Snickers and S’More screeching, “EEE-HAAAAW” and the older jenny just standing off to the side looking bored.
Eventually, as we all stood in 110-degree weather, sweat pouring down our faces and backs, the mission became just to chase the stubborn asses onto the trailer, halters be damned.
We thought that maybe if we managed to load Snickers and keep CC in the same area as her, CC would follow after her friend or at least be somewhat easier to capture.
B backed the trailer up to the outer gate of the yard. And we pulled, we pushed, we tugged, we pleaded, we bribed with treats and pats and even got a bang stick to smack on the ground behind Snickers’ feet but she. Did. Not. Budge. We might as well have asked the house to grow legs and walk into the trailer.
Finally, around 4pm, as we stood red-faced in the heat, we called defeat.
We’d have to come back another day and bring panels to create a corral around the trailer. Once herded into the corral, we could make the pen smaller and smaller until they had nowhere else to go but in.
We all agreed that we would at least try one last thing, which was to attempt to move the oldest jenny with the awful feet. Bailey, I was calling her, since in a weird way she reminded me of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
We were hopeful, as she seemed way calmer than the rest. If we could at least get her into the trailer, our efforts would all be worth it.
After we’d all stood around catching our breaths, chugging water and wiping sweat out of our eyes, I went over, took Bailey’s lead rope, and walked her in the trailer with absolutely no incident.
All of us breathed a sigh of relief. And so, Angel went to let the donkeys back into their 12-acre lot, and the rest of us drove up to Triple R Horse Rescue, Bailey safely and calmly inside the trailer. The other three would have to wait.
Another week passed. Angel, AERO and I arranged for another attempt on August 11th. This time, Soleil from AERO came too.
Angel and I got the donkeys up to the front again by ringing a bell. We’d trapped them in the smaller yard by the time the AERO trailers were pulling in, before they had time to realize what was going on.
Soleil calmly looked around at the three donkeys, started settling up the panels with T and another of her volunteers, then told us exactly what we’d need to do to get them in the trailer.
We constructed the panels to make a corral leading to the trailer which we drove the donkeys into. Once they were herded inside, we snapped it shut and – through Soleil’s instruction – gradually made it smaller and smaller, using carefully placed noise and movement to encourage the donkeys to step into the trailer.
Finally, after CC and S’More walked inside, it was down to Snickers, who we’d managed to halter again. Soleil and T held her lead rope, her other volunteer and I had opposite ends of a strap which went around Snickers’ butt, and Angel stood by ready to push. On “GO!” Soleil pulled the rope with T helping, her other AERO volunteer and I pulled on the strap, and Angel pushed Snickers’ butt until – with extreme effort – we had pushed one stubborn, irritated donkey onto the trailer and shut her inside.
We cheered when the trailer doors were safely latched. The donkeys protested a bit, not knowing they were safe, not knowing they were on their way to good food and clean water and medical attention and more love than they could imagine. But boy were we glad. All in all, with the panels it took less than an hour.
Looking back, I know there’s no way it could have been done without AERO. It’s been several weeks since the rescue and I’m still in awe of their expertise in rescuing feral equines and their willingness to drive to the middle of nowhere and haul them an hour away.
There’s no way it could have been done without Triple R. Bailey had been with Curry and his team for a week before we got the other three to them, and in that week Bailey had gained weight, gotten her feet done, been put on necessary pain meds and joint supplements, and soaked up more human attention and devotion than she’d probably seen in her life.
And there’s no way it could have been done without Angel.
Here was a woman who might not have known a great deal about equines but who had all the love in her heart for them. She followed her instinct and reached out to get them help.
Had she listened to the people at her work who told her to look the other way, had she listened to her boss who insisted that the donkeys were fine… who knows what could have happened to them out there, especially Bailey.
Curry at Triple R told me outright he was worried about her on the first day.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think she’s going to pass a Coggins test,” he said as we stood that day, watching her cautiously eat her soaked alfalfa pellets. “And I hate to try to rehome her.”
I nodded. Bailey was old. Her teeth were bad. She’d probably be walking a little funny for the rest of her life, after having to adjust to such horrendous hooves. The market for donkeys and horses out of which humans can’t get some use is slim.
“If you can’t find a home for her,” I said, “we’ll take her.”
Which is why, yesterday, Curry drove a much healthier, much happier little old donkey through our gates. The name ‘Bailey’ wasn’t entirely popular with the Tierra Madre team, and Jim came up with the idea to call her ‘Abuela’ which is Spanish for grandmother. And so, Abuela she became.
The other three donkeys are pending adoption over at Triple R, and knowing how awesome the team is up there, the donkeys are losing weight and getting the medical attention they need before they go to their new homes.
Thanks to our careful plan and the casual manner in which we approached the subject of rehoming the donkeys to the boss at Company, Angel kept her job. She and I still text about the donkeys, and she’s probably going to come visit Abuela soon.
And Abuela? She is still adjusting to her new life at Tierra Madre. She’s certainly reserved, and content to be by herself while M’Stor and Studley and Nibzie make faces at her at bit.
But she is a sweetheart above anything. For someone to have gone through so much, she is gentle and soft and kind as the grandmothers we love dearly. And to me it seems like she is just waiting to get settled in before she imparts some grandmotherly wisdom onto each of us.
In this world, animals are abused and neglected and misunderstood. They are injured and abandoned and left for dead.
But where there is darkness there is light. Animals are rescued and rehabilitated and treated with care and respect. They are saved from horrors we can’t imagine and brought back onto a path of happiness and excitement. They are given the chance to love their lives again. They are shown love.
And I leave you today with one message:
You, reader, have the power to change lives. Never underestimate what you can do for the lives of innocents.
And your instinct? It is always right. Trust it.
When you look into the eyes of Abuela and think of this amazing rescue effort sparked by one single person, I hope you always remember that.
— Alexis