Donkeys’ Pair Bond

Chippo and Ziggy walking along a trail at Mule Springs Farm.

The herd instinct is especially strong in a burro. Not only does he need a companion to live with, but he can suffer separation anxiety. . . . –Dave Daney–veteran burro packer

One of the first things Peggy said when I told her what happened was, “That’s what you get when you take a bonded pair.”

Until today I didn’t fully understand what she meant by a bonded pair.

Donkeys are herd animals, and they like to be near other donkeys. But a bonded pair “needs” to be close to its partner.

Chippo leads the way over a three foot wall near the donkeys' paddock.
Chippo shows Ziggy how to jump back into the stall from the tack room.

I had both donkeys tied in the stall. Chippo was tied near the stall exit door, and Ziggy was tied across the room near the stall entrance. I began to rub Chippo’s furry coat with the idea of eventually working my way down to his feet, but, as usual Ziggy who was across the room also wanted attention, and he jerked at his rope and pawed the ground.

If I tied only one donkey the other donkey would bump and nip at the tied donkey making it impossible for me to do any work.  If I tied both donkeys then the donkey that wasn’t getting attention fidgeted and pawed the ground like Ziggy was doing today.

I thought if I could work on one donkey at a time, I might get somewhere with my training. I only had five weeks to prepare for the farrier’s visit.  By then the donkeys should be able to stand quietly tied, lift their feet when asked, and allow their feet to be cleaned with a hoof pick.  In addition, the farrier would trim their feet by cutting the hoof down to the correct size and smoothing the outer hoof wall with an implement resembling a huge nail file called a rasp.

During the past three weeks I had been on over fifteen hikes with the donkeys, and I had spent at least two hours every day with them. I felt the donkeys were comfortable with me, so I figured they would be secure enough to separate for a few minutes.

I decided to close Chippo out of the stall, and make him stay in the paddock while I worked on Ziggy inside the stall.  Surely Chippo would hear us just feet away from where he stood outside, and all would be well. I would open the door and exchange donkeys when I was finished with Ziggy.

After I shut Chippo outside I heard him banging up against the door and pawing the ground. After a minute I could only hear the sound of the wind outside, so I assumed Chippo was waiting—maybe even grazing– in the paddock until the door reopened.

Meanwhile, Ziggy was much more difficult to work with when the door was closed, than when I had both donkeys in the stall.   He refused to pick up his feet, and suddenly he was stomping his left foot on the ground.  His breathing picked up, and he kept twisting his head back so he could see the closed stall door. After a few minutes I gave up and admitted my experiment was a failure. I walked over and slid open the stall door. To my surprise Chippo was at the far end of the paddock, and when he saw I had opened the door, he galloped at full speed toward me. I jumped back, and quickly got to Ziggy and pulled the quick release on his lead line, so he was free.  Chippo thundered into the stall, and I flattened against the wall.  I’ve been to a horse race and seen how thoroughbreds blow when they’ve been running hard.  Chippo’s nostrils flared, and his breath was so loud it was just short of snorting! The whites surrounding his wild eyes were visible, and emotion was rolling off the little burro’s body in waves. I kept speaking to Chippo in a soft voice, “it’s okay boy, it’s okay.” I felt a sharp pang of regret, because I had caused his distress.  Still, I had trouble grasping why this short separation was such a crises.

In an effort to downplay the drama, I wondered what I could do to allay the tense situation. Perhaps a hike would be good for all of us, and maybe we could finish this session on a positive note. So, I gathered up both lead lines and began walking out of the stall toward the gate.  I did not have the donkeys on lead, but Chippo trotted so closely to my left side he was almost brushing my clothing. He may have been afraid of being left behind. I reached down to give him a reassuring pat, and quick as a rattler he reached out and bit my left hand coming down hard on the index finger. I dropped both lines and screamed “no!”  Chippo jumped aside. I felt frightened, and I looked down and saw blood pouring from my finger. I immediately headed for the gate. Once outside I ran into the tack room and got a towel to hold around my finger. Then I took my cell phone up the hill to the old farmhouse site, where I knew I had good reception, and called Peggy.

Peggy listened patiently as I unfolded the story.

“He bit you?” she said.

“Chippo obviously panicked.  I think you may have separated them too soon,” she said.

“They need to be able to see each other. It is better to tie them about eight feet apart and begin with short training sessions. Eventually they will stand quietly, and they will pick up their feet—just keep at it and give them time to settle in. But, you will need to find a way to train them together within sight of each other. They are pair-bonded.”

I thanked Peggy, once again, and assured her that my finger was not broken, and the cut was not overly deep; it would heal.  I recalled what she told me early on about donkeys remembering “everything,” and so I asked if Chippo would forgive.  She assured me he would.  I had my first lesson in what can happen if you try to break up a pair bond.

This point was brought up again the following day when I received an article in the mail from a friend entitled “A Love Affair” written by E. J. Kirchoff.  The essay told the story of a little black donkey named Leroy that bonded with Jenny Fizz the family’s milk cow. The two did everything side by side. They ate “from the same manger, with heads close together, and [bedded] down in close proximity to each other.” And when Jenny Fizz “would have her calf, you’d think Leroy was the proud father.” When the calf was “weaned” or “went to market” Leroy would bray for the loss of the little one as Jenny Fizz mooed. Their deep friendship lasted many years.

Kirchoff writes:

Not wanting to break off that romance I put off the inevitable as long as I possibly could. But, the time came when the cow had to go.  Leroy was devastated.  He wandered around like a lost soul, searching for his mate.  Or he would stand immobile for long periods of time, just looking off into space. Now and then he would voice his bereavement.

Shortly after Jenny Fizz died the little black donkey, by then “well up in his forties,” lay down in the sun and went to sleep “forever.”

It seemed remarkable to receive this story about a special pair bond, and to have just experienced, first hand, an example of how strong the pair bond in donkeys can be. I promised myself to never separate Chippo and Ziggy again, if I could avoid it, and to figure out a way to train them as a pair. In retrospect I realized the training that day had not been a complete failure as I learned a valuable lesson.

Author’s Note: The finger did feel much better after a few days.  I have had the donkeys for ten weeks now, and Chippo has never attempted –after the separation event– to bite or show any aggressive behavior toward me whatsoever.  Both donkeys are very gentle. They stand quietly when tied, they pick up their feet, and they lead. I have developed a method for working with them together, and though I still encounter challenges, I have had many training successes during the past few weeks.

Questions: Anyone else have an animal pair bond story?