“Very Special Donkey”, coaxed into Vermont farm life, sparks hope of preserving a rare breed that dates back to the Middle Ages
âHe was a very special donkey,â said Bari Fischer, board member of Arnold’s Rescue Center, a 90-acre shelter for displaced donkeys and horses that is Hamilton’s home.
Hamilton is believed to be the first Poitou in the United States to be successfully bred by artificial insemination, opening up new possibilities for infusing the old line with fresh blood.
The birth of the donkey was also part of a larger, though little-noticed effort to save the so-called heirloom breeds of livestock, poultry, and once common draft animals – from cotton-field geese to Choctaw pigs; From Cubalaya chickens to real Texas Longhorns – now disappearing from farms or ranches and headed for extinction.
The North Carolina-based Livestock Conservancy warns that dozens of domestic breeds – and top of the list is the Poitou donkey – are in extreme danger of wiping out. In the United States, it was often the old colonial races that supported the early settlers.
“These are breeds that have no place in the modern world, replaced by meatier pigs on factory farms or chickens that lay more eggs,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior conservation program manager, speaking by phone from Oklahoma where she was collecting cell samples. Choctaw pigs, the moody breed with curvy necks and fused toes popular on farms in the early 18th century.
âWe are trying to conserve a unique genetic heritage that could be lost forever,â BÃ©ranger added. âOur goal is to save animals. If not, we can at least preserve DNA – who knows what secrets it holds? “
Donkeys are still used as beasts of burden in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. But Baudet du Poitous was highly prized in Europe – and later in nineteenth-century America – not for the strength of his back, but for the fruit of his kidneys.
âBaudet translates to ‘father of mules’,â said Fischer.
Bred with horses – especially large farm mares – Poitous produced some of the finest mules until the turn of the 20th century. And mules, which are sterile and cannot reproduce, have for centuries been the main draft animal of the Western world – pulling plows and vibrating agricultural machinery, yes, but also transporting armies at war and wagon trains across endless meadows.
Then came the tractors. Then came the trucks. Suddenly the mules were obsolete – with the donkeys that gave birth to them. Even the Poitou nobles were slaughtered by the thousands for dog food or sold as pets or rides. Or, in milder times, landed in “rescue centers” like the one in northeast Vermont.
Fans of rare donkeys were delighted with Hamilton’s arrival in the modest equine center of northeastern Vermont, near the Canadian border. Arnold’s, a non-profit organization, takes care of 15 displaced donkeys – including 10 Poitous – and four horses.
The big applause went to researchers at the Illinois University Veterinary Hospital who made Hamilton come true.
âIt’s very cool and a great first. There are over 200 breeds of donkeys and many are endangered, âsaid Amy McLean, professor of animal science at the University of California at Davis and expert on donkeys. The desire to produce a new Poitou donkey from old frozen semen “brings hope to preserve donkey breeds at a global level”.
But as the sun rose on Hamilton’s first day, the donkey’s failure to thrive threatened to shatter hopes.
The delivery went badly, despite the electronic medical monitors on Jenny’s. Death seemed likely. And it would have marked a demoralizing setback for the work of vets, researchers and animal rescuers trying to revive Poitou donkeys, a lineage that dates back centuries. The French royal family, including King Louis XV, worshiped creatures with unkempt, exuberant hair, according to historical accounts.
âDonkeys are known to have existed in France during the Middle Ages,â said Giorgia Podico, veterinarian, doctoral student and member of the Illinois Poitou breeding team. âIt is one of the oldest breeds of donkeys. But it was almost extinct by the 1970s.
Indeed, the Livestock Conservancy has described Poitou donkeys as “rarer than black rhinos and giant pandas”.
Even today, after intensified conventional breeding efforts, experts say less than 100 Poitou donkeys survive in the United States and barely 600 worldwide. France, with its more exacting definition of purebred, puts the number of Poitous survivors at around 300.
âThey are beautiful, powerful, powerful animals with beautiful dispositions,â said BÃ©ranger. âThey were very valuable. Until they weren’t.
The ambitious insemination of the Vermont jenny was led by Igor Canisso of the University of Illinois, a world-renowned theriogenologist or animal reproduction specialist. Unlike cows, donkeys are notoriously difficult to artificially inseminate. Even more difficult when using frozen semen, as the thawing process can damage the cells, making it problematic for the most skilled animal reproduction specialists.
âI’m addicted to difficult clinical cases,â Canisso said in a veterinary college statement.
Most of the surviving Poitous are in France, which has a scientifically sophisticated Poitevin sanctuary and breeding center, and where research vets consider donkey resuscitation a matter of national honor. But they have had no success using the frozen semen technique that Hamilton produced, donkey experts say.
In the United States, donkeys – with their distinctive “dreadlock” manes – are considered rare and quirky enough that a Poitous trio could be on display at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. Outgoing, attention-loving creatures are a hit in a section that focuses on welcoming farm breeds – as opposed to exotic wildlife, zoo officials say.
“Understanding and getting to know pets can be a great basis for understanding animals.” [in general], and evolutionary processes and relationships between humans and animals, âsaid John Linehan, CEO of Zoo New England.
Illinois’ insemination attempt was a long shot, so there was joy when Quiche was found to be pregnant. She was transported – as smoothly as a horse transporter will allow – to Vermont to await completion.
“Even adding just one more Poitou was going to be an important step in protecting the population from decline,” Fischer said at the Brownington center.
But Hamilton was born early, unexpectedly, and pretty much into the proverbial dark and stormy night. By accident, the trembling bundle of flesh, bones, and spirit slipped from its mother’s womb into a puddle of dirty water. The mother tried to persuade him to get up and accept some milk. She failed. The baby was lying in the mud.
The next morning the donkey was in “total sepsis,” in Fischer’s words – infected through and through. Hamilton was rushed 160 miles to the Myhre Equine Clinic and Hospital in Rochester, NH
Then came a dozen days of touch and go in the clinic’s intensive care unit. Under treatment supervised by veterinarian Ron Vin, Hamilton survived.
“The miracle donkey,” Fischer called him.
Well, the miracle was the result of veterinary skills and powerful drugs. But maybe prayer played a role – the donkey’s plight caught local attention and concern. Even austere Amish farmers, who aren’t emotionally sensitive or interact with non-Amish people, would drop by the rescue center and find out about Hamilton.
Hamilton, who is not yet 3 months old, is now back on the Vermont farm and appears to be in good health – pouncing on his beloved blue “therapy” ball and happily chasing the ducks. Her mother ignores her, apparently she believes her real baby died that horrible night in July. But a 38-year-old donkey named Henry has become a genius father figure, giving Hamilton the occasional nudge to pay attention to his manners.
âDonkeys settle down to be what they should be – happy, safe, cared for as best they can,â Fischer said.
Colin Nickerson can be reached at [email protected]