Issue 20.3: June/July 2017
Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

Charlie’s New Bestie

Story by Tiffany Hunt. Photos by Megan Spelman.

The donkeys that once hauled coffee on the steep slopes of Kailua-Kona in the early twentieth century were nicknamed “nightingales” because their braying could be heard at nightfall as the sociable animals communicated with each other from farm to farm. The sudden supply of surplus jeeps available after World War II put the Kona nightingales out of business. Not at the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, though, where a lone nightingale named Charlie has done his part to keep the song of the nightingales alive in Hawai‘i’s coffee country.

Located on five acres in Captain Cook, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm is both a working coffee farm and an interpretive museum, both run by the Kona Historical Society. Costumed volunteer historians demonstrate everyday tasks once performed by the Uchida family, who worked the farm from 1913 until 1994. For fifteen years Charlie has helped show how Kona’s coffee farmers used their beasts of burden. And for fifteen years Charlie’s only animal friends have been some thieving chickens who help themselves to his feed and the indifferent farm cats who stare at him from fence posts.

But at the age of 30, Charlie’s social life has taken a turn for the better. In response to a crowdfunding campaign dubbed “Charlie Needs a Bestie,” Yamagata Farms donated a six-month-old donkey to the historical society to serve as Charlie’s companion and eventual successor. “This is like Charlie’s first real friend,” says the Kona Historical Society’s volunteer coordinator, Carolyn Lucas-Zenk.

Charlie’s ears perked up as the trailer carrying his new companion pulled up at the Living History Farm in January. When the little donkey was led down the ramp, it was love at first sight, witnesses say. The two animals quietly rubbed noses for several minutes upon meeting. “It was adorable,” says Lucas-Zenk.

Next, the historical society launched an online fundraising campaign to name the baby donkey, who enjoys chasing chickens out of the pasture. The fundraiser netted $1,254 for her care and feeding, as well as a name: Mele. According to kūpuna (elders) in Kona, it’s a name that many coffee farmers gave to their female donkeys. And since mele can mean “song” in Hawaiian, it’s a fitting name for a braying nightingale.