A Special Bond with a Depressed Donkey

After the death of her son, the author opened a farm sanctuary and helped a despondent animal heal from a similar tragedy.

Posted in , Oct 24, 2018

Robin feeds her brood of animals.

December 21. Winter solstice. The longest night of the year, when some churches hold a service for those who are grieving or hurting. Sadness tinged with hope…I knew that feeling well. It was part of the reason I was having one of my big bonfires—to celebrate the changing of the seasons and to honor the loss that led me to these 20 acres in northwestern Oregon that I’ve turned into a home for rescued farm animals.

The animals here at Enchanted Farm Sanctuary love the bonfires. I don’t know if it’s the sight and sound of me stacking wood in the firepit or the light and heat of the flames that draw them, but they all come from the barn or the fields and gather around. I read them stories, play a little music. I think they sense it’s a special, sacred time to be together.

That year I piled sticks and logs in the pit and opened the barn door. All the animals came out, except the one I wanted most desperately to reach. Ronnie, the five-year-old donkey who had arrived at the sanctuary so depressed, he seemed to have lost the will to live. I took one last look at him, standing listlessly in his stall, and went to light the fire, leaving the barn door ajar in case he wanted to come out.

I’d hoped our serene setting and the company of other animals would give him a fresh start. But Ronnie had been here for three months and nothing had changed. He ignored the two other donkeys, which was unusual because donkeys are extremely social. He showed no interest in food either. He never touched the hay I put in his stall. I made special treats, like molasses-and-beet-pulp muffins, to tempt him, but he barely took a bite.

I’d been so sure that I could get through to him, that I could show him I understood his pain better than anyone else. Now I wondered: Had I made the right decision in taking Ronnie in? Maybe bringing him here had only traumatized him further.

I thought back to that dark time five years earlier, in 2007, when I too had felt there was no reason to live. My home was in Colorado then. My beautiful little boy, Danny, died from sudden infant death syndrome. He was two months old. I fell into a depression so deep that it blotted out everything else. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function. I spent entire days curled up on the floor. My fiancé, Danny’s father, dealt with his grief in his own way.

This continued for months, until I woke up from a fractured sleep one morning and realized I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I loved my son with every fiber of my being. Where would that love go now?

I needed someone to talk to. I went online and googled bereaved mother to find a counselor or support group. What popped up was totally unexpected: a video of a mother cow who’d had her calf taken from her. She was devastated.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that cow, mourning the loss of her baby. She’s going through the same thing I am, I thought. Something shifted inside me, and suddenly I knew what I needed to do. I needed to help animals and their babies, to save other creatures who were suffering.

My 10-year relationship with my fiancé had fallen apart by then. I left Colorado. I didn’t know where I was headed. I just got in the car with my two dogs and started driving. I was on the road for the next three years, getting to know different parts of the country, searching for the perfect farm for the animals I planned to rescue.

Finally I found the right place, a 20-acre property with a tiny farmhouse in Newberg, Oregon. It needed a lot of work, but rebuilding would have to be done bit by bit because word spread quickly about how I wanted to rescue animals. Just 10 days after I closed on the property, neighbors called. They had passed a garage sale that had a mini horse in a cage. Within minutes, I was there in my truck. Molly had been severely beaten. She was the first rescue I brought to Enchanted Farm Sanctuary. Her physical wounds healed quickly. It took a lot longer for her spirit to heal.

The sanctuary became home to many more animals: chickens, ducks, horses, llamas, goats, donkeys, pigs, turkeys and dogs, all of whom had suffered abuse, neglect or some other traumatic experience. I saw a little bit of myself in each of them. But the one I identified with most was Ronnie.

A full barn at Enchanted Farm Sanctuary.

His owners, a farm couple, had come across the sanctuary’s Facebook page and sent me a message. “We’re worried about our donkey. We think your sanctuary would be a better home for him after what he’s gone through.”

Normally I rescued animals from abusive owners. This was unusual—caring owners who wanted better for their animal. I rented a horse trailer and drove an hour and a half to their place. The couple led me to a field. There, staring at the barbed-wire fence edging the field, stood Ronnie. Everything drooped—his ears, his head, his shoulders, his tail. He looked so forlorn.

“He hardly leaves that spot since the accident a year ago,” the woman said. “He won’t eat.”

She and her husband told me the story. Ronnie’s son, Jack, had been a few months old, still learning to walk. He stumbled into the barbed wire and got tangled up. Ronnie saw his child in distress and ran to help. He bit at the barbed wire, trying so frantically to free Jack that he got a bunch of cuts around his mouth. But it wasn’t enough. The little donkey died.

An aching for my own little boy hit me so hard that for a few moments it hurt to breathe.

“People make fun of me for saying this,” the man told me, “but Ronnie is depressed.”

I nodded. I understood.

“He’s the only donkey here now,” he said. “We’re hoping that being around the others at your sanctuary will help him with his grief.”

I got closer to Ronnie so I could look into his eyes. I wanted him to really see me, to see that I knew his pain and that he could trust me to help him. He didn’t look away. Still, it took quite a bit of coaxing—and lots of carrots—to get him into my trailer. When we arrived at Enchanted Farm Sanctuary, he was eager to get out.

That was the only time he’d been eager to do anything. In the three months since, his depression hadn’t lifted. He’d retreated further into himself, further from life

Now it was the winter solstice, a time of ending and beginning. Which would it be for Ronnie? It was possible for an animal to die of a broken heart. I didn’t want that for Ronnie, and I would never give up on him, but if he gave up…

I knelt by the pit and lit the bonfire. With a whoosh, it went up. I sat back to watch the flames dance in the night sky. The animals watched with me. I looked at them, all gathered around the fire, and felt a surge of love. This was where the love I had for Danny went—to this sanctuary, to my rescues.

Then I heard a sound behind me. I turned. There was Ronnie, coming out of the barn, walking toward us. He stopped right beside me. The other animals were looking at him, but his gaze was fixed on the fire. We stayed out there for a while longer. I read stories aloud and played wind chimes. A sense of peace settled over us.

The next morning I went to the barn to feed the animals. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Ronnie was eating! He was chomping down the hay in his stall. When the other animals went out to roam the sanctuary, he joined them. It was as if his anguish had burned away on the night of the winter solstice and a spark of life was lit again.

It’s been five years since Ronnie’s bonfire breakthrough. He’s very active, social and vocal. Stylish too—he likes to wear scarves. He’s the head honcho at Enchanted Farm Sanctuary, out and about every day, checking on the other animals. They all look to him, especially the other two donkeys, Merlin and Morrison. He’s a father figure to them.

As for Ronnie and me? We will always have an unspoken bond. Both of us have known the deepest love and the deepest loss. And we have both found a place for that love to go.

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