Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Elyse Butler
In a pasture in a remote area of upper Puna on Hawai‘i Island, Snake pricks up her ears. They’re very impressive ears: long and soft and oval, like a deer’s. When she hears the rattle of alfalfa cubes in the bucket Sharon Sharp is carrying, she trumpets a greeting: not quite the stereotypical “Hee-haw.” More like “Heeya heeya heeya.” The true sound of a Kona Nightingale.
Snake trots over to Sharp but stops about three or four feet away. Sharp puts the bucket down, steps back. Snake edges forward and drops her nose in the bucket while those big ears track Sharp as if they were radar antennae.
This is progress for Snake. Until recently she’d never been so close to humans. She’d spent most of her life running wild on the fountain-grass prairies near the village of Waikoloa, on the Big Island’s leeward side. Sharp adopted her from Bird McIver, who runs CB Horse Rescue, a nonprofit in lower Puna. Bird got her in turn from Dr. Brady Bergin of Aina Hou Animal Hospital, who’s coordinating with a local rancher and a network of animal lovers to find homes for most of the Waikoloa herd, the largest population of feral donkeys left in Hawai‘i.
Like the curmudgeonly oldster she is, Snake hasn’t adapted to change as well as the youngsters. But she’s getting there.
“Bird thought she was really incorrigible and mean,” says Sharp. “But even the donkeys us experienced horse people thought were hopeless are coming around.”
A few miles away in another pasture Sharp rents, five more Waikoloa refugees are leading a more public life. Whenever Sharp shows up, even with visitors, they crowd around like they’ve been buddies with humans all their lives— even Gizmo, so fresh from the wild that he’s still gaunt. A pretty donkey named Gayle is a special success story. She loves people. Thirty days after leaving the wild, she was marching in Hilo’s Merrie Monarch parade with a coconut-frond hat on her head and a pack on her back, assisting the pooperscooper squad behind a troupe of horses.
Gayle is sort of the default color for donkeys: silvery-gray, with a white nose and black stripes down the back, across the shoulders and on the legs—a sign that donkeys are more closely related to zebras than to horses. A couple of Gayle’s companions are brown. Very occasionally a white donkey shows up. People who aren’t used to being around donkeys can have trouble telling one from another; doing so is partly a matter of variations in the shade of gray or the pattern of legstripes. But mostly it’s a matter of personality. Donkeys have a lot of it. They can be as quirky as cats and as loyal as dogs. Some love everybody, some love nobody and some bond strongly to a single person. And they’re smart, very smart.
Sharp owns three of the donkeys; she’s boarding three more for a friend. She hopes to use them as pack animals in her trail-riding business and even perhaps for riding. “I’ve been training horses for thirty years, but donkeys are different,” she says. “Donkeys are a lot quicker, and if you make a mistake they don’t forget. Most horses will take thirty of forty repetitions before they learn something. A donkey takes three.” And whereas a horse can be “sort of bullied,” she says, not a donkey. “You have to make them your friend or you’re getting nowhere.”
There are some six hundred donkeys in the Waikoloa herd; Snake and Gayle are among the three hundred that have already found new homes. Bergin hopes to relocate a couple of hundred more that remain out on the range. Their old home has simply gotten too crowded—not just with donkeys, but with people.