A few weeks ago , while I was spending a few hours wrapping meat beside the man who creatively cuts meat for my customers, we were chatting about Fiona the donkey.
Everyone has been wondering how, or for that matter, if, I will be able to get her on any form of transportation to take her from the Wiles Lake summer pasture to the winter refuge of Petite Riviere. "She may have to stay there all winter" people have been saying to me.
I have spent quite a bit of time in the past six months since Fiona the donkey arrived, working on our relationship. No, we did not go to a counselor as some people do when human relationships aren't strong. I bought carrots. I also took the time to find out where she likes to be scratched. In a world of itchy spots, having someone know where you like to be scratched can go a long way in a relationship, at least a donkey relationship. A special food treat doesn't hurt either.
By the end of the hot itchy weather, Fiona was calling to me when she saw me opening the gate. Depending on her mood she also would initiate contact by walking up to me. "Depending on her mood" is how a donkey is very different than a horse, so I have come to realize. Days when she is feeling very protective of her sheep she sports about the pasture, head in air and the idea of coming closer than just out of my reach is unthinkable. Then there is the other Fiona; the Fiona that comes and rests her head on my shoulder and asks to be scratched or even takes my arm in her mouth and just holds it, not biting, just connecting. As the summer wore on I found more days with the "Scratch me" Fiona and less with the "I'm a wild animal" Fiona.
So, when the butcher and I were talking about Fiona I asked him if he might consider leaving his stock trailer in the field for a couple days so she could have a chance to get used to that piece of equipment and maybe even get on and off a few times to eat. A stock trailer is the business class of trailers to my economy class of sheep bus.
He kindly agreed.
It is Friday and the butcher suggests he has time to deliver the trailer to Wiles Lake pasture. I warned him that, because of my this week's experience with the little sheep bus getting stuck there is no way his big heavy "business class" trailer could be turned around. "Do you think you can back it all the way up the cart road and into the field" I asked, knowing there is no way I could ever achieve such a feat. In true style of that man he said "No problem".
And indeed, he backed that long trailer up the cartroad to the top of the hill, around the corner and then...
The long trailer with the truck attached could not make the necessary curve to get through the gates because the cart road drops off sharply toward another field. He could get the field gates open forming a funnel to the trailer and that's it. He thought he might be able to leave the trailer set up like that but that would mean no electric hot wire for coyote protection. Not an option. Now what?
Because this was a spur of the moment appointment I did not have Louie the border collie with me. I did have Marley, the thirteen year old retired border collie with cataracts, whose large activity these days is begging for scratches and occasionally lying in a gate entrance to stop sheep from coming through. Let's say she is not in top sheep herding form.
Try number one. Today, Fiona the donkey is the "scratchable" Fiona. That's positive. I took her by the halter. In preparation for this day I had just purchased a bag of horse feed which is full of the sweet goodness of molasses. Would molasses feed help the cause? Yes. She started walking toward the trailer. Then a few more steps... No. She simply said "I like you and all but I am not going to get on that thing." and backed her way clear across the field. Donkey style. No fuss, just not doing it.
Try number two. I jogged to the car and fetched the snoozing Marley, the retired border collie. I asked her if she would run across the field and get the 15 grazing sheep. "Sure". It wasn't pretty herding but she got the job done, brought the sheep to me. The remaining vacationers knew what was up and they were ready to go home. I walked on this luxury trailer and they hopped right on, up to the front. The butcher closed the divider gate and that was that, the sheep were on and waiting for their ride, hoping against hope they would not get bumped.
I put Marley the retire border collie safely out of harms way outside the field and returned to Fiona the donkey. I took Fiona's halter again, with that delicious molasses feed at her nose and the knowledge that her sheep were waiting on the trailer I asked her to walk to the trailer. Nope. Not getting on. She backed across the field again.
The butcher suggested, again, I might just leave Fiona in the field. That did not feel like the right thing for me to do.
I was going to give up, bump the sheep off the ride and put everyone back in the field for now. I knew of another trailer that will fit in the field and so that was going to be my next plan.
Then, the butcher said, if you're ok with it, we are both strong and maybe with us both on the leadrope we could get her to move forward onto the trailer.
Try number three. First, a bit of summer background on attempts with lead ropes....I got rope burn three different times when trying to teach her to lead on a rope. I had long ago slated teaching her to walk and tie on a lead rope as a Petite Riviere winter project. Now, here was the butcher suggesting we might teach her right now. Hmmmm....
Ok, let's try. Unfortunately there is no video of this little adventure because the only two people around were leaning with all their might pulling on a rope with a donkey, front feet firmly planted, leaning in the opposite direction. Donkey tug of war.
If she gave us a step forward I gave her molasses feed. We just didn't let her have that step to go backwards at all. Unlike a horse, again, there was no fuss on either side. Just a lot of stubbornness.
The donkey said no I am just not moving. The two humans said fine, but you aren't going backwards either. Every few minutes Fiona would relax, take a step, be rewarded with molasses feed. Eventually it was starting to get dark. We were within a few feet of the open trailer that had Fiona's sheep at the front. She took one more step, close enough that I could put molasses feed on the floor of the trailer opening. She relaxed, put her head down to smell the feed, didn't want it but saw her sheep inside. Then, all of a sudden, just like she said, "Ok, I'm tired of this game", she just walked right on the trailer, very relaxed, just standing there wondering what took us so long to get her there.
That was it. The butcher re-hooked the trailer to the truck and drove Fiona and her sheep to Petite. Fiona did talk some as she drove through Bridgewater. I wondered whether she was asking if we could stop and do a little shopping since we were in town. The sheep? They were just happy that they did not get asked to get off the trailer and were actually heading home.
At Petite Riviere, the butcher backed the trailer right up to the barn door. I put a lead rope on her. We did have to start Donkey Tug of War again but Fiona was only half-hardheartedly playing so after one interchange she said "Oh, let's just go in that stall over there."
The butcher took his luxury transportation and toddled off to his home.
I thought all was good once I had her in a stall. Fiona the donkey thought differently. The sheep had just walked off the trailer and gone into a stall of their own. That was totally unacceptable to Fiona. Again, in fear that she would be out of work I guess, she started pushing on the gate, threatening to break through the gate, which had been made for sheep, not a thousand pound donkey. By now, the Vineyard Manager had arrived, wanting a bit of entertainment before he had to leave for work. He brought Blackie and Tulip, two old retired ewes over to the stall, did brief introductions "Fiona this is Blackie and Tulip; ladies, this is Fiona. You are going to be roommates.", put the two ewes in with Fiona and just like a light switch, Fiona went to the back of the stall and just relaxed completely.
I checked her later and the next morning and still, Fiona is calm, cool and collected, donkey style.
I guess I will continue to figure out donkeys for some time to come.