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Rescued donkeys, coming soon to reality TV

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Ron King with his pet donkey Viejo, who is "just about perfect."

December 27, 2021 — Oscar’s Place, a donkey sanctuary in Hopland named for a cat, is populated by guinea hens, medieval artillery, and dozens of soon-to-be reality TV stars.

Ron King is a former New York fashion and media executive who lost his job in the pandemic and decided to devote himself to rescuing donkeys. The 75-acre ranch is named for the memory of a much-beloved pet.

Donkeys are charismatic, with their quizzical expressions, big hairy ears, and dainty hooves. They are equines, but their brains, their guts, and their hooves are entirely different from those of a horse, which means they require a different kind of care. They are also profoundly emotional. “They form very strong bonds with each other, and with their human caretakers,” King said during a tour of the premises on Friday morning.

Oscar’s Place has had just over eighty donkeys come through. Twenty-nine have been adopted, and six are permanent residents. Not many are available for adoption at the moment, since King wants to make sure they are successfully rehabilitated, both physically and emotionally; that potential adopters have the resources and the fencing to take care of them properly; and that they will be treated as pets, rather than beasts of burden. He also won’t adopt out pregnant females. Most importantly, he will only home them in pairs, even if they are destined to be companions for other animals. “I have promised these donkeys a safe, happy, and healthy life, and I believe that retirement is probably part of that,” he said. “I think donkeys probably do enjoy having a job, but it has to be pretty light. The primary reason people adopt donkeys is to be a pet, and secondarily, they’re great guardians.” 

While the donkeys he introduced to a visitor were affectionate and docile, nuzzling for treats and leaning into shoulder rubs, King says “donkeys are fierce.” Their bonding tendency means they will protect their friends and family, starting with a unique bray that is often enough to send coyotes in search of a meal somewhere else. Next, they charge. “Usually, a thousand-pound animal charging will deter it,” King explained. “If the coyote still continues, donkeys’ back hips are double jointed. They can kick sideways and backwards. And so if you ever google Donkey vs. Coyote, which I do not recommend, the donkey always wins.”

For all that is endearing, unique, and fierce about them, the species is a bit of a modern-day castoff. “Most ancient cities around the globe were built on the backs of donkeys,” King reasoned. “And then we got tractors. Now, in this century, horses win races. Cattle feed a food system. Goats produce milk and meat. So they all serve a monetary value to humans. Donkeys have no monetary value. They’ve just been used, and then discarded. So the donkey has very few advocates.”

Viejo, King’s personal pet donkey, is one of the permanent residents. He and his friend Sandy got a vigorous rub as King talked about what he knows and doesn’t know about the animals who show up on the ranch with a variety of conditions. Donkeys end up at auction houses, where their buyers almost inevitably slaughter them, for a variety of reasons. Either their owners or the owners’ heirs surrender them, or people illegally round up wild donkeys and sell them for quick cash. King suspects Viejo was surrendered, because “he came off the truck friendly. I think he is just about perfect.” Sandy, who is heavily pregnant, is food-motivated, so, according to King, “she acts like she’s being sweet. She’s just trying to manipulate you into giving her some food. If you don’t, she will leave you.”

King hasn’t entirely lost his fashion sense. He is fully aware that he and Viejo, both silver-haired partial brunettes, go well together. “Photographers seem to like us because we have the same color hair,” he divulged, planting a kiss on Viejo’s forehead.

His media senses are still keen, too. Starting in 2022, he promised, “the donkeys are going to be reality TV stars. Several different production companies approached us, and it was very important to me that we understood what our northern star was and what kind of story we’re going to tell. It’s  really going to be stories of compassion and joy and some of the heartache that comes from running a donkey sanctuary.” 

He already knows who the biggest stars are going to be. They’re just outside a high-ceilinged barn, echoing with the cries of guinea fowl. The guineas are supposed to protect everyone from rattlesnakes, and sure enough, at 10:00 in the morning on Christmas Eve, there wasn’t a rattlesnake in sight. They’re not the stars, though.

“Donkeys are pregnant for 14 months, so we already know how many babies we’re going to have next year, and that number is 23,” he announced, leading the way into the maternity pasture. “Donkey babies are adorable, and make for really good TV.”

They also come in a variety of sizes. Hershey, who is the size of a really big dog, is probably half mini. Which brings us to the medieval artillery.

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Ron King with Sonsa the friendly warhorse. Oatmeal the Belgian is in the background. The two draft animals are the only horses at the donkey sanctuary.

  Sonsa is a baby, too, at two years old. But she is a Percheron, a giant horse that was bred for doing battle with soldiers wearing chainmail and wielding lances. “A pushy Percheron is quite a different thing from a pushy donkey,” King observed, trying to dissuade her from running down a visitor out of sheer curiosity and exuberant friendliness. Her journey from the auction house to Oscar’s Place should resonate with anyone who ever went to the pound to pick up a lapdog and came home with a pitbull. “I went to the auction in November to rescue donkeys,” King recalled. “And this one chose me. I just fell madly in love and decided I needed to follow my heart, even though it wasn’t really our mission, so here she is.”

King is planning to bring in a trainer, and eventually put Sonsa to work, giving donors cart rides and helping round up donkeys on vaccination day. In the meantime, he’s focused on the mission, which is kind of a long, elaborate way of saying thank you to a species that’s been carrying our burdens for a very long time.

 
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