After the emergency hacksaw surgery on his hooves, Sherman barely moved.
We held our breath, waiting to see if he could walk, but Sherman spent all day pressed against the side of our little brown barn, head hanging, looking like he’d been led there for execution. On the outside, the neglected donkey looked better than a few evenings ago, when he shuffled off a trailer, lame and sick with matted fur. But now he needed to move, to walk, in order to survive. Whether he was frightened, or in pain, or just confused, we couldn’t tell.
“I can’t believe he isn’t dead,” a friend who raises sheep in upstate New York messaged after seeing a photo of Sherman. “I have seen farmers here put down animals in far better shape.”
My wife, two girls and I left Sherman in peace, keeping an eye on him but trusting that for now, what he needed most after his liberation from years in a mucky stall and the tough-love of his hoof trimming and matted-fur shearing was time to rest. Or so we hoped.
Donkeys on deathwatch were way out of our very limited field of experience. We weren’t animal people when we moved to Lancaster County, even though we’d landed ourselves amongst Amish and Mennonite neighbors whose lives revolved around their herds. For the first three years we didn’t even have a cat, and only took one in because she turned up at the back door. We edged our way into bigger creatures after Katie and Amos Stoltzfus, our closest Amish friends, told my lactose-intolerant wife that sheep milk was easiest on the human stomach. We borrowed a pair of Katie’s ewes for a few months, and then decided to start a little flock of our own. From sheep we had to progress to a pair of fainting goats, Chili Dog and Awesome Blossom, after discovering that the Falmouth Goat Race, one of America’s weirdest and funnest throwback festivals, was almost in our backyard.
So until Sherman arrived, our version of a farm was pretty much a turn-key operation. Goats, dairy sheep and barn cats mostly look out for themselves, requiring little more than hay in winter and a regular squirt in the mouth of deworming paste. I had more trouble managing myself than them, like when I gave in to temptation and bought Lawrence, an adorable little Oberhasli goat whose poor ears had been deformed by frostbite. Only after I got home did I discover that they’re famously strong jumpers who love to rocket over fences.
Sure enough, we were soon being woken at five in the morning by neighbors pounding on the back door after swerving to avoid the furry doofus in the middle of the road. It was hard to stay mad at Lawrence, though, because his breakouts seemed less about freedom and more about friendship. Whenever I shuffled out to haul him in, he’d come trotting right up as if wondering where I’d been all morning.
But sweet as he was, I was worried about mixing Lawrence with Sherman. I wanted to surround Sherman with the comfort of a herd as soon as possible, but I couldn’t tell if Lawrence would be perfect for the job or a disaster. His friendliness can freak out kids and other animals, especially when he forgets he’s got two giant bone spears on his head. His bounding welcome can look like an attack, especially to other males. Chili Dog, our other billy goat, has learned to mostly ignore him, but I had my doubts about an already-traumatized donkey.
I kept Sherman on his own all day, thinking he’d settle in more easily and begin to explore his new home, but by nightfall he still hadn’t budged. I decided to bring the other animals back from the pasture, hoping they’d be in such a hurry to get into the barn that they’d barely notice the stranger. Maybe they’d smell the new presence in their midst overnight and be adjusted to it by sunrise.
It wasn’t much of a plan, but the sheep were down with it. When I opened the gate, they breezed straight past Sherman and into the stalls with Lawrence galumphing along behind. Suddenly Lawrence stopped: head high, on alert. He pivoted toward Sherman, who was now cornered against the barn wall, and began sniffing him from head to tail. Sherman remained frozen, even when the points of Lawrence’s horns were right in his face.
Lawrence’s next move won my forgiveness for all his escapes: instead of joining the other animals inside, he lay down at Sherman’s feet.
When I came out the next morning, Lawrence was still by Sherman’s side. It was more than just heartwarming; if Lawrence’s friendship could get Sherman to move and eat, it could keep him alive. I put out some hay and Lawrence, that chowhound, bolted for breakfast. Sherman took a few tentative steps to follow. He didn’t eat, probably because the sheep were charging around the feeder like sharks attacking chum, but wherever Lawrence went, Sherman was close behind. The rest of the day, they were inseparable. By evening, Sherman was joining the rest of the gang at the hay feeder.
Over the next few days our horse-trainer friend, Tanya, stopped by repeatedly to check Sherman’s progress. She fed him apple-flavored deworming paste, and brought over an equine dentist who pulled Sherman’s rotten teeth and estimated by their growth that he was only eight, shockingly young for a donkey who seemed eighty. But his feet, at least, were looking hopeful.
“He’s moving well,” Tanya said. “A lot better than I expected.”
But when we tried to lead Sherman out for a walk, he refused to leave the grass.
Getting Sherman to step confidently onto hard surfaces was essential to my plan for his recovery. Tanya, who is as close to a donkey whisperer as you’ll ever find, knew that for Sherman to heal, he needed a job, a sense of purpose. I wanted to turn him into a runner. Maybe one day, I could even lead him to the starting line of the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Colorado.
Legend has it that the sport was born in the Gold Rush, when prospectors ran alongside their pack animals to register their claims. A few Colorado miners in the 1940s began racing their burros from Leadville to Fairplay along mountain trails that were 12,000 feet high and 30 miles long. Other towns got in on the action until, at the peak of burro mania in the 1980s, a top racer could live off nothing but prize money from a dozen races in three states.
Recently burro-racing has been on the rise, partly because it attracts athletes craving a test as demanding as an Ironman triathlon. “To me, the really interesting challenge is working with a large animal that can run any second, any day, any week, faster than any human on earth,” says Hal Walter, a sub 2:30 marathoner who left roadrunning to become a seven-time winner of the World Champion Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Colorado.
Training Sherman to race with me could be the perfect thing to help him heal and learn to trust again. The rules of burro racing are simple: You have to be accompanied by a donkey, which you can not ride. You can use any kind of donkey (or burro, since they’re the same thing), but mules are a donkey-horse hybrid and therefore forbidden. It’s a lot like running with any other buddy, assuming you’ve got the kind of friends who occasionally freeze in their tracks, bolt for the hills, and kick you in the face.
“He won’t set foot on anything hard, though,” I told Tanya. “He won’t even step on gravel in the driveway.”
“That might be his brain, not his feet,” she said. “You’ve got no idea what kind of life he’s had. There could be a lot of trauma between those ears that needs to be unpacked. Let’s try something. Go get that goat he likes.”
I fetched Lawrence and snapped a leash on his collar. Lawrence is always up for an adventure, especially when it might involve a treat, so he walked eagerly at my side. “Bring him out here to the road,” Tanya called, “and let’s see if Sherman follows.” As Lawrence and I approached the pasture gate, Sherman’s head jerked up. He began to follow, quick and anxious. Suddenly, he broke into a canter and ran past us. He stopped right in front of the gate, blocking it so we couldn’t get past and out to the road. Check mate. He gazed off innocently, as if he’d ended up there by accident.
“Shermie, you rock star!” Tanya shouted. “All messed up but wicked smart. Dude, he’s like the ‘Good Will Hunting’ of donkeys.”
She quieted down and gazed at Sherman, thinking.
“Do you think it’s possible?” I asked her. “Do you think I can turn Sherman into a racing donkey?”
“Now that,” she said, “would be amazing.”
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