Gilpin couple find their guard donkey to be ‘a pet with a job’
Christina Myers of Gilpin received an unorthodox gift in 2017: a donkey.
“I woke up on Mother’s Day and my husband Travis said, “Let’s get a donkey.”
“I don’t have kids, but I’m mom to a donkey named Jack.”
Jack, a 3-year-old gelded standard donkey, was specifically bought by the couple for “guard donkey” duty on the family farm in Gilpin.
Sometimes referred to as “livestock guardians,” donkeys are one of three animals — along with llamas and dogs — recommended and sometimes utilized by farmers to ward off predators.
“My husband was researching online about which animals would be best for guarding cows,” Myers said. “He was looking for a donkey that had guarding experience.”
Jack was a Craigslist sale and fit the Myers’ needs — he already was experienced at guarding horses in Ohio.
He protects about 24 beef cattle on a dozen acres of pasture along Ice Pond Road.
He loves snacking on carrots and apples when it’s treat time.
“Normally, he’s with the cows in the field,” Myers said. “And, at night, he watches over the cattle in a cluster of trees they usually hang out under. He’s alert.
“We hear coyote around, and the coyotes are our biggest predator concern.”
Statistics from a 2015 USDA report revealed coyotes and dogs accounted for 30% to 40% of sheep deaths and 25% of goat deaths in the U.S.
Donkeys are effective protectors
Mary Lou Williams, owner of The Rosefield farm in Washington County, is a donkey shepherd with 20 years of experience.
She raises full-sized conditioned guardian donkeys. Conditioned donkeys are raised among livestock (sheep and cattle) from birth.
Williams currently has about 16 guard donkeys that will be sold up and down the East Coast.
They cost $1,500. Donkeys can live for more than 50 years, are not easily startled like horses, don’t require special feeding or care and have a natural aversion to dogs.
She sells her donkeys at around age 3 because “the donkeys need to get through their terrible 2’s and gain a level of maturity.”
Williams said she has seen her guard donkeys kill a fox and stray dogs on her 100-plus acre farm.
She said her customers cite coyotes as their main concern.
For the Myers, Jack offers around-the-clock protection of their beef cattle that have the potential to fetch up to $2,000 each at market.
“We haven’t lost any cows to predators,” Myers said.
Donkeys possess a keen predator-detection instinct.
Possessing excellent hearing, smell and eyesight, donkeys are known to bray loudly and position themselves between a predator and the animals they are protecting.
According to popular gardening, homesteading and livestock magazine Mother Earth News, often sheep or goats come to see the larger donkey as protective and will gather near it if they perceive a threat. Donkeys can protect against a single fox, coyote or roaming dog.
The magazine describes typical donkey behavior toward a predator as “aggressive, using their teeth and hooves, biting at the neck, back, chest or buttocks of the predator.”
Over at Renshaw Farms in South Buffalo Township, Studly, June, Lily, Daisy and Olivia comprise a donkey protection team.
Renshaw Farms owner Jason Renshaw said his miniature donkeys protect more than 50 black angus and Devon beef cattle, sheep and goats on his 289-acre farm.
“It’s a gut-wrenching feeling to lose livestock to predators,” Renshaw said.
“The coyote is the biggest concern for us, and a donkey will run toward a predator and kick them.”
“They (the donkeys) don’t back down. And, if anything isn’t normal, like recently when a balloon fell in the pasture, the donkey went over — investigating. They are like little security guards with their little grey fur suits on, but they are aggressive and powerful toward a predator.”
Non-profit Allegheny GoatScape added a second guard donkey in 2018, named Diamond, to help another donkey, Hobo, protect their Steel City Grazers goat herd who work as urban grazers — clearing overgrown land and reducing nuisance plants at various locations in Allegheny County.
For the Myers, Jack is more than a donkey with a friendly disposition.
“He’s a pet with a job,” Christina Myers said.
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.