Gigi was a slender, pink roan donkey jenny, half an inch shy of being what people classify as mammoth. She was smart, the boss of her companions. And she was possessed immense powers of observations, as well as uncanny skills which we will hear more about soon.
Gigi spent her first six months on a small ranch of 300-some acres in the rippled plains of south Texas. Her forebears had arrived two decades earlier, where mesquite — some grown into enormous trees — stood alongside oak, hickory, bushy huisache and plenty of brush. And prickly pear, miles of it.
Those forebears had come through a BLM auction in Arizona, as many as would fit into a good sized stock trailer, to be turned loose on the place in South Texas, where they were often left to their own devices. There was, for a few years, a man who took a great interest in them, visiting from Houston, sometimes for long periods at the ranch. Eventually he grew sick and the donkeys did not see him any more. They did remember the stench of cancer, however.
From time to time long horned cattle shared the scanty bounties the land had to offer. A local veterinarian leased some of the acreage for them, hunters paid to bag mule deer, dove shoots took place every spring. These things are how some ranches survive in the region.
The ferocious weather did what it always does in South Texas — floods the land four feet deep in low spots or hurls drought at it till the earth spits apart and wildfires rage. In between there are lots and lots of fiestas amongst the people of the area.
Over the years the nearly wild donkeys learned about the dry oven-like and humid sauna conditions that made up well over half the year in those parts. They endured the flash floods for which the region is infamous, and the great droughts that left the cattle with nothing but prickly pear cactus to survive on. Over time the parched earth gleamed with plenty of bleached cattle bones alongside the more delicate ones of the donkey herd.
The nearly wild donkeys watched the weekend rancher in his worn out jeans or shorts as he went around with a weed burner — trying to flame vicious thorns off the myriad prickly pear for the cattle. At other times they watched him doing his best to ignite the thin, dry grass of late winter into enough of a fire to bring on fresh green grass the next time it should rain. The fires seldom caught, much, but the donkeys would throw themselves down onto the burnt patches, rolling and grunting with that immense pleasure they take in getting dust rubbed all over themselves.
They saw the man clearing weeds in places around the ranch’s few stock tanks, at other times shaking his head as the tanks dried out for lack of rain. They also watched his scowl deepen as armadillos bumbled their way across the land, leaving deep holes wherever they dug for food. The man would grab them by their tails and swing their heads against whatever tree or wall was handy.
When Gigi was born there was only that one man taking care of the ranch. He did spend a couple of weekends a month there, repairing fences, buildings, equipment, bush hogging encroaching brush, setting up blinds for deer hunters, feasts for dove hunters.
Nobody was around when the tiny jenny made her appearance into this harsh world, so nobody knew how her front left pastern came to be so badly broken. When the weekend rancher arrived one day he was surprised to find a mature jenny leading a badly limping foal. He summoned a vet to bind the leg and did his best to keep an eye on her.
Months later there was only a slight limp. Baby bones had healed well. Which was good, since the friendly jenny found herself climbing into a beat up horse trailer, rumbling and jiggling along unpaved ranch roads, away from her herd. Across dusty, arid West Texas and the Llano Estacado of eastern New Mexico — said to be the flattest spot on earth — she rode, and then up and up, a mile and a half high, slightly down again, through the southern Rockies.
There she — and the strange stick-walking woman who drove the truck to which her own clatterling chamber was attached — promptly ran into a terrific haboob. A high desert sandstorm that, for 80 mph traffic, reduced visibility from ten miles to 0 — in under ten seconds.
There were uncomfortable maneuvers and a couple of startled brays from Gigi before the punishing sandblasting ended, and there she was, descending from the trailer, led into a small panel corral. Beside it her future companion — Jasper, the former pack donkey from the Navajo Reservation — was so excited to see another donkey that he took off buckfarting and braying all over the dry lot he lived on.
Gigi had landed in the middle of New Mexico, joining a family who loved donkeys a lot more than they understood them. Which suited the red roan girl just fine.
One of the first items to be settled was a name for the new girl. The three humans lined up to take turns saying — loudly — the names they had in mind for her. Three sets of eyes were fixed on her, awaiting reactions. When the name Gigi elicited a particularly alert look on her part the jenny got her name.
She took on her manners fast enough during her days of quarantine in that panel corral.
Shocked to find that her new humans did not take kindly to normal donkey herd antics like quick nips to the shoulder and kicks to the shin, she would start to take a chomp or let fly a hind hoof, only to freeze, then rescind the motion as though nothing had happened.
Trying to let them know that she, Donkey, was the boss of them, Humans, she would start to drape her big head over someone’s shoulder, which would quite abruptly be removed.
But she did get her lessons down very well, outwardly. Inside, the pink donkey held onto her innate wildness. She could work her system to her own advantage when she wanted to.
The food was steady, the water tank filled afresh daily, her short Texas winter coat gently brushed out in a hot New Mexico spring. The carrots and apples were great, especially since they appeared faster than they had back there in the bigger, wilder herd.
She and Jasper — who was at least as clever as she was, Gigi rapidly discovered — settled their territorial disputes in no time. Gigi was allowed to assume the natural dominance of jenny over jack or gelding. In the wild jack donkeys form loose bands and stay there for much of their lives. Jasper, however, excelled in shrugging off Gigi’s bossiness by pretending to be a stud herd all his own.
The people went to work, the girl to school — and there she was, this pink donkey who had once had hundreds of acres to roam upon, confined to an enclosure ringed with oil field pipe and wire mesh — about half an acre. She could see far and wide, though exercise was confined to circular gallops with Jasper, round and round till the two would collapse for side-by-side rolls in the dust.
Boredom set in.
Lessons learned at her mother’s shoulder resurfaced in Gigi’s quick donkey brain. Dovey, a champion lock picker, had taught her offspring well. But this tiny place had lock challenges less often encountered on the Texas ranch.
Gigi was not familiar with the chain link locks that included the gates to her paddock. A plan of attack was hatched …. For days she ambled gently after the man who picked up manure and chopped back some of the six foot ragweed every day. For her private amusement she frequently tipped over the wheelbarrow of dung when he was turned away.
Shuffling along quietly behind him when he opened and closed the big gate, she kept a brilliant eye — half hidden beneath her thick forehead fringe — on what moved, rattled, shook and stayed still around that big old gate.
One day a bolt fell out, the man leaned down to retrieve and refasten the thing and Gigi knew what she had to do.
Donkeys were not endowed with their strong, flexible, prehensile lips for nothing. Those lips, with sensitive whiskers, serve donkeys well in their natural niche as browsers. They are unlike horses in their specialized relation to the land as they do not really graze. Using those lips they finesse bites of soft grass, woody shoots or leaves out from amongst things like sharp thorns, crevices and fences. They learn how to bite off and carefully chew all manner of thorny things.
In barns and pens they unfasten girths, remove one another’s fly masks, pluck their halters and lead ropes from hooks, carry buckets, toss large rubber balls, run side by side with another donkey as each holds one end of a long stick, fling plastic chairs — and undo screws.
Gigi had her eye on a rose garden a few acres away from her fence line. The lavish garden had been slowly established on the far side of a weedy field by people who first built a spacious home for their retirement.
Surrounded as she was by five foot fencing, the only way Gigi could see to getting into that garden of prickly delights was to undo the gate when no one was around to stop her.
And so, every day for a good long while Gigi watched her people drive off and disappear into the home office to write, then settled into the tedious process of removing nuts from bolts holding the chain link to the gate post. Some of those nuts were frozen in place after years in the sun, rain and snow, yet they gave way to infinite donkey patience — and those strong lips of hers.
Next the determined jenny began pushing the bolts out. She started at the bottom, and the humans failed to notice that the chain link was slowly, ever so slowly, coming away from the post.
That is, not until the day when the woman drove into the yard to see zero donkeys standing at the gate with their usual welcoming brays going full blast. A crooked, bulging gap separated chain link from its post and also suggested the exit of round bellied creatures.
A visual search of the loafing shed and stalls established that there were no donkeys present.
In due course the human noticed unusual motions down the street in that rose garden… What a very big butt was sticking out of some distinctly short rose bushes!
A few minutes to get down there with her daughter, find that the neighbors were not at home — and that there were not many roses, either. Just two sleek, well fed donkeys gazing benignly at the glaring humans. Ready to trip their dainty way back down the road, just in time for: Dinner!
If there was ever a song that expresses what I feel in remembering the 15 years I had with my donkeys and mule, it would be this one, sung by Mercedes Sosa and Joan Baez: Gracias a la Vida