VERNON COUNTY - Diego is standing alone at the fence, waiting for his hay. But he and Carlos, my two miniature Sicilian donkeys, are like Siamese twins, alwaystogether. My heart beats quicker as I scan the pasture, looking for Carlos’s ears standing above the tall greenery.
“Carlos? Carlos!” I yell.
My shoulders start climbing toward my ears as I head to the back of the house to turn off the electric fence and grab my tall rubber boots. Fear starts seeping deep into my marrow. Carlos isn’t making a sound and he’s alone. He must be hurt. This might be an emergency!
I climb over the fence into the pasture and Diego follows me. “Where’s Carlos, buddy? Where’s your friend? Can you take me to him?” I ask Diego as we pick our way across the creek. Walking through bushes higher than my head, I follow the well-worn path made by years of my donkeys’ wandering the fence line seeking out the little bit of scrub they enjoy eating.
Will Carlos be injured? Dead?
I see his ears! “Carlos, what are you doing?!” And before I’m close enough to see his soulful brown eyes I notice he’s on the wrong side of the double-wire electric fence.
I wish Carlos could talk, but instead he’s deathly quiet. I’m perplexed as to where he got outside the fence and how to get him back in. I try pushing the top wire over him, but he’s about two feet too tall for me to get it over his oblong head.
Thrilled to see Diego and me, Carlos starts to push through the wires the wrong way, at risk of getting entangled. “No, no, little buddy. Easy now. I’m here. I’ll help,” I reassure him, as I gently block him from moving further.
My breathing deepens as I work that top wire, trying to stretch it over him. Holding it up as high as I can with my right hand, I place my left hand on top of Carlos’s head. Gently pressing down and talking sweet nothings, I get Carlo’s head inside the pasture. His legs are still on the other side.
Carlos has surrendered. He’s relaxed, calm, breathing easily, no longer pushing at the fence. Diego stands so close to me that his shoulder is leaning against my side.
After encouraging Carlos to come closer, I lift his front leg to place it over the bottom wire. Success! Head and one hoof in—three to go. As I carefully bend down to lift his other front leg, I tell them both what good guys they are. Their ears cup forward and turn toward me.
It dawns on me, out there in the wild of the pasture, with sweat building from the heat of Diego pressed against my side and the painstaking precision of my calculated movements, that the donkeys trust me. Building a trusting relationship takes time, kindness, and consistency.
Leading them to safety in storms and floods, often with lightning flashing, and water and logs swiftly rushing past.
Feeding them their hay daily, taking them treats, and brushing out their winter coat.
Putting on their fly masks and knocking out the hornets’ nest in their shed.
Rubbing the inside of their ears and removing any dirt I feel in them.
Having their hooves trimmed regularly, and sitting with them on sunny days, scratching Diego's backside, with Carlos’s head in my lap.
Both of Carlos’s front legs are inside the pasture now. The horseflies have discovered us, along with the gnats and a few mosquitoes. I still need to pick up each of Carlos’s hind legs and get them over that bottom wire. If I blow this and spook him I fear he’ll get tangled up in the fence.
Diego starts to get impatient, or maybe he’s just fed up with the flies. He stops leaning on me and moves a few feet away. Perfect, now I can move more easily. Reaching back for Carlos’s nearest leg, I start talking about the hay that I’ll give him as a treat once he gets back where he belongs.
It seems to work—three legs in and one to go!
Diego comes back at a trot, most likely having been bitten on the rear end by a horsefly, but amazingly Carlos stands firm. He knows I’m helping him. He wants to be in his pasture where he feels safe.
The last leg is the easiest, and when I place it down on the correct side of the fence Diego softly hee-haws his approval and walks away. Carlos wastes no time in following him. I tag along behind.
After tossing out some hay, I stand at the fence and marvel at these two fine-looking donkeys. I feel honored and humbled to have earned their trust.
I wish it were that easy for all of us, with all of mankind. Trust takes time, kindness and consistency.