Donkeys carry with care

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Diego, adopted a year ago from the Bureau of Land Management, gets ready for some Reiki at Summit Equestrian Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Picture it: You’re a young girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy — one with major implications for the larger world — and a new husband who wasn’t quite on board at first. The kid’s coming any day now, but guess what? You’ve got to schlep to another city because some dude in power decided to take a census. Some help with these burdens sure would be nice.

Though the Gospels do not specify how the two got to Bethlehem, the image of Mary riding a donkey with Joseph walking alongside is part of Christmas culture. One can only hope it happened that way. It would have been a long, hard walk for a pregnant woman, maybe impossible if she went into labor en route. But even if Mary and Joseph didn’t have their own donkey for this trip, it’s not hard to imagine that one might have turned up on the road to Bethlehem and, having considered the matter carefully, volunteered for the job.

Donkeys have traditionally been beasts of burden, but they have a strong sense of self-preservation. I’ve learned they carry a lot more than us and our stuff … but they’re selective about what they take on, and when.

Diego, who is pictured above, came to Summit Equestrian Center last year from southwestern Arizona via the Bureau of Land Management. This previously wild burro was understandably overwhelmed when he arrived. The first time I offered to share Reiki — a non-invasive stress relief modality — with him, he declined and walked away. I told him that was completely OK, he was in a safe place, and I was not there to force anything on him. Central to the practice of animal Reiki is that participation is always up to the animal.

In the weeks that followed, he did agree to share Reiki for short intervals, each time moving a little closer to where I stood just outside his enclosure in the barn. One day, he gently bumped noses with me. Soon he decided he liked not only Reiki but head rubs.

Diego has his own sense of where he belongs and the proper way to relate to others. Throughout last winter, he stayed in the barn, often accompanied by Lakota, the mustang with whom he’d traveled from the BLM center. He watched with concern as Mildred the goat settled her arthritic limbs into a pile of hay, and she calmly returned his soft gaze.

Another day, Josie, Summit’s resident pig — who at the time was going through what I can only describe as porcine adolescence — approached the pen. Diego leaned down so that they were nose to snout. Josie, who perhaps had counted on being ignored by the equine newcomers, squealed insolently and trotted off. A confused Diego drew back.

“Don’t take it personally, Diego,” I told him. “You should hear some of the things she’s said to me.”

Spring flowers bloomed, and Diego still resisted going outside. Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, read up on donkey training, gathered some ideas, and decided she needed more treats and more patience. On the next try, Diego walked right out and joined the others as if that was his intention all along. A natural introvert, he’s found his niche — often a donkey-sized space in the trees — but he joins the herd around the hay each day. When he wants Reiki, he makes himself available when I’m on my rounds.

As Allison pointed out, Diego challenged us to get beyond what we thought should happen and when, and instead to tap into our creativity and patience. That freed us to think in new ways and Diego to offer more of his authentic, kind self. From someone captured from the wild and moved from one holding area to another before being adopted, that is a precious gift indeed.

Rosie, a miniature donkey who was formerly part of the Summit herd, also had strong opinions about what should happen when. If breakfast was late, everyone heard about it, and she didn’t like it when the pony she habitually hung out with wasn’t close by. Once, when I arrived and went to check in with the sheep, ducks, and chickens first, Rosie hee-hawed from the pasture fence.

“I’ll get there,” I assured her. “You’re important, too.” She looked back at me, ears swiveling, and quieted down. She still wanted to be first, mind you, but she appreciated the acknowledgment. Rosie has since found a new family and is happily keeping her humans, horses, and cows in line.

A friend has a donkey she says is like a giant cleansing stone, soaking up her worries and processing them like a string of rosary, mandala, or misbaha beads. It’s a relationship of trust and mutual care. If a donkey shares your burdens, you can be sure that donkey finds them (and you) worth his or her while.

Today’s donkeys may not carry material possessions and riders like they did when Mary needed help on her journey. But if we treat them right, and let them lead us into new ways of thinking and being, we may find support beyond our wildest human expectations.

Giving touch tank animals a hand (or not)

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Cownose rays at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. (Photo ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

When I see children and adults crowded around a touch tank at a zoo or aquarium, I can’t help cringing just a little. The introvert in me cannot imagine that having all those reaching, possibly grabbing and grubby hands in the water could be anything but stressful for a stingray, shark, starfish, or other animal. Water is a quick conductor of energy.


The two-finger method — which is not being used here — helps ensure a light, gentle touch for the animals. (Photo ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez)

Yet I also see the kids’ delight — not just in getting their hands in the water and touching something new and different, but in actually interacting with these beautiful and fascinating creatures. A child who touches a stingray that swam up to him is far less likely, I would think, to be cruel or indifferent to stingrays, other sea creatures, or animals in general as a decision-making grown-up.

I had the experience myself as an adult of putting my hand in a touch tank. A stingray swam past, I thought just to graze the tips of the two fingers I offered, but he stopped right under my hand. That momentary connection is something I’ve remembered years later.

But is this interaction good for the animals?

A 2017 study at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago compared the health indicators (heart rate, weight, and other markers) of 40 cownose rays in the touch tanks to 18 in off-exhibit tanks. Both groups remained clinically healthy. This would indicate that cownose rays, at least, take touch-tank duty in stride.

Watch any touch tank, and you’ll see a few rays flapping playfully around the edges. There are natural meet-and-greeters — ambassadors, even — in every crowd, and bless them for putting themselves out there. However, some animal welfare organizations, including PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), say all touch tanks by nature are inhumane and should be shut down.

A couple of things I’ve observed in recent years: Some touch pools have out-of-reach “rest areas” where the animals can go at any time if they do not want to be touched. Other aquariums close their touch tanks at intervals to give the animals a break. Both of these are positive steps. As an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m a big advocate of not only animal protection but healthy boundaries.

So I continue to have mixed feelings about touch tanks. The Shedd study will likely spur further research and consideration about how these exhibits further the cause of animal welfare and education, or if they do. In the meantime, should you choose to visit one, I can offer a few tips to help make it a better experience for the animals, you, and any children in your charge:

  1. Make sure the zoo, aquarium, or other facility is reputable; look for accreditation by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums.
  2. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water up to your elbows, rinse well, and dry.
  3. Follow any instructions or rules posted near the touch tank or spoken by a staff member or volunteer. Adults, this means you, too.
  4. Make like a lighthouse. Before you even touch the water, get calm, stand still, and imagine light radiating out from you.
  5. When you put your hand in the water — you may be told to use two fingers — wait for the animals to approach you if they choose. (You’re still a lighthouse.)
  6. If a ray or other animal makes contact, continue to — you guessed it — keep still and calm. Thank the animal before you step away from the tank.
  7. Repeat step No. 1.