Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Guardian or Not?

Above: What happens when you state your opinion on this subject!

Ok friends, here we go! The biggest debate (it seems) in the donkey world: are donkeys good livestock guardians? 

I have enough trepidation in broaching this subject that I waited a few months since conceiving the idea to write this article in order to get my thoughts wrapped around how to do so in a way that will offend the fewest.  I am not sure I will succeed. 

It seems I run up against this question all the time. Folks who  have used donkeys as livestock guards successfully absolutely swear up and down the make the BEST guards ever. People who are against it have usually seen carnage as a result of donkeys being put in that position.  This article will attempt to show both perspectives, with the thesis that we should seriously rethink our myths surrounding The Livestock Guardian Donkey. 

I have to be honest, my first donkey was given to me because he was supposed to be a livestock guard, and ended up nearly killing a full grown goat he was supposed to be guarding.  Yes, he was gelded, yes, he is sweet, no, he was not a good livestock guardian! This was my first introduction to the subject...a somewhat relieved email from the wonderful women who gave me Charlie, my first donkey, stating that he had tried to kill a goat and they would be very happy to give him to me. He had failed a livestock guard but was an excellent riding prospect, and is still with me here at Foghorn Farm. Once I got to know more about donkeys through Charlie, I realized that there are many myths and misunderstandings about donkeys that are rarely challenged. I made it my mission to learn and educate. 

Donkeys, like all equines, are prey animals. Prey animals are on alert because they are food for predators. Prey animals are rarely a match for a predator, especially a large one. Donkeys have gotten a reputation, bordering on myth. That reputation is that they will guard your smaller livestock against coyotes, bears, wild cats, dogs, you name it! There is a photo that makes the rounds often of a mule attacking a mountain lion. (I believe that mountain lion was already killed when the photo was taken...via bullet, not mule).  Donkeys, because of how they evolved, have a lot more fight (and baulk) than flight, unlike a horse.  For that reason, donkeys are more likely to chase out small animals from their paddocks. Most donkeys owners have witnessed their donkeys chasing small birds, foxes, even, in my case, small children! (Charlie donkey loves to chase kids on bicycles....he's an odd one). 

Because of the propensity of donkeys to chase intruders out of their areas, people often buy them as guardians for their cattle, sheep, llamas, goats, and chickens. Sometimes, this works out very well (for the human). The donkey cares about their flock/herd, and truly protects them and deters predators. Donkey may be extremely lonely, or not even believe it is a donkey, because it is kept alone. The really good situations involve the owner getting a pair of donkeys who get along well with their livestock. I have heard stories of owners who have donkeys who do protect their charges and really are worth their weight in gold. This is all fine and dandy in those situations, if the donkey is cared for physically. Can they be caught? Can they be trimmed on a  regular schedule? Can they get vet work done and dental? Do they eat donkey appropriate food so they don't get obese and founder?  I do know a few people who have donkeys living with their flocks or herds and who religiously care for them, train them, and keep them healthy, as well as love them deeply. That is the absolute best case scenario. 

But what happens when it all goes wrong? Will it go wrong one day? Will the donkey end up killing lambs/goats/calves suddenly (and yes, I heard stories of this almost daily)? Will the donkey stomp a hen?  Oftentimes, yes. Donkeys don't always differentiate between a predator "stranger danger" and a newborn "stranger danger".

Here are several anecdotal accounts of donkeys and smaller livestock. Many many many donkeys end up sold cheaply at auction (many times intact jacks) because they were found to attack livestock. Many of the donkey rescues I am in contact with have told me that they get daily calls from farmers wanting to relinquish herd guardians. Here are a few stories:

"A friend called 2 days ago and said the jenny he had in with his sheep was trying to kill the lambs. He said he had to get rid of her. Not liking the sound of get rid of, I agreed to buy her. "

"My neighbor had a mini-donkey. I don't know what's going on in his head, but he began to kill sheep / lambs. Some of them have survived, but I had to sew their lips because they were bitten. Very sad story."

"My goats have been attacked several times by my donkeys. One time I found one goat unconscious in the donkey pasture! One rabbit was stomped to death, a sheep has a half ear and dogs have been attacked several times."

And then, sometimes this happens:

Photo credit: Jenny Davis

This is a mini who stood no chance. Here is what Jenny wrote about this photo (and others which were much more disturbing): 

"I use this day every year to remind and educate that miniature donkeys can not be used as livestock guardians. They are small and unable to defend themselves against dogs & coyotes!
What happened to our dear Chantelle three years ago today has made us understand the importance of safe fencing. 
I can only hope that her pain and suffering through the ordeal will help save another donkeys life in the future.
The pictures below are very graphic but show her journey through the healing process. She went through numerous surgeries & endured months of treatment. Please understand your miniature donkeys must be protected just like sheep or goats!"

Sorry, folks, for the graphic photo. I despise when people try to pull at my heart strings through obscenely graphic posts. But this one is needed in this context because, interestingly, people STILL think that minis make great livestock guardians. But what about standards and mammoth donkeys, who are much larger? Surely they are better suited to fend off a mountain lion?  

Sadly, not really. Like I stated before, you MAY get lucky. But even a mammoth is absolutely no match for even one determined dog. I learned this the hard way, when a woman's dog jumped out of her car window and proceeded to attack my two mammoth donkeys who were in a round pen. They were nearly eviscerated. They were just trying to protect themselves. They had bites in their muzzles, tendons, bellies, and anuses. They fought hard, and couldn't even protect each other against one dog! I won't post photos of that attack, as they are so disturbing to me I don't want to see them again. 

SIDE NOTE: And then, there is an entirely different but related discussion to be had about mixing canines with equines, especially donkeys. Some people have donkeys who tolerate dogs they know well, some people THINK their donkeys and dogs "love to play," but in reality the donkey is chasing the dog (or vice versa), gunning for its life (I see videos like this weekly that are sent to me). Some people realize that the chances of having injured animals and vet bills just aren't worth it. It's up to you. But this is a discussion for another day....

This debate about the myth of The Livestock Guardian Donkey seems never-ending.  While there are some wonderful owners who truly care for their livestock donkeys, keep them safe, and, in return, their donkeys enjoy watching out for their herd, I have found the opposite to be true in many more cases. Oftentimes the donkey is on alert constantly because they are faced with dealing with predators on their own, something a prey animal fears. Putting a donkey in the position where they must be the sole lookout is not fair to the donkey. Putting a donkey in the position a Livestock Guardian Dog could fill much more effectively isn't fair to the donkey. Putting a donkey in a position where they don't know they are a donkey because they were raised with different livestock is definitely not fair to the donkey. Donkeys are extremely social and tend to form strong bonds with other donkey, often for life! Many rescues and breeders will not sell/adopt out donkeys if they are not in pairs for this very reason. 

And then there are the vet bills. I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten messages/emails from people who are confused because their donkey has been guarding their herd of goats for X years and suddenly they started hurting/killing goats (or insert whatever livestock you can imagine here)! There are vet bills when your donkey gets mauled by a dog, a pack of coyotes, a mountain lion, a bear. There is pain. Why risk it, I wonder? 

Because we have perpetuated the myth of the Livestock Guardian Donkey. 

Perhaps the best advice I can give is this: If you have a wonderful Guardian Donkey, that is AWESOME! Glad it is working out. Please do not suggest donkeys as Livestock Guards for others, unless you are referring to specific donkey you know will guard well. Not many donkeys are well suited for the job, and the risks simply outweigh the benefits.  


  1. Great post! My 2 girls are with the 4 horses (dry lot in the day, and horses there too as night paddock). The coyotes give us a wider berth because of the girls but, having said that, their purpose is not as guardians but just happens that way. They are part of my herd and treated accordingly. Safe fencing, proper food, shelter and a stall during harsh Canadian weather. My friend's 2 minis were badly mauled by a Husky someone put in with them. They were no match. Donkeys deserve better than being thrown in as guardians.