Late in the 18th Century the word “donkey” replaced “ass” to describe Equus africanus asinus, that member of the horse family that human beings domesticated and put to work more than 5,000 years ago. That about summed up what I knew about donkeys until a recent visit to the Rancho Burro Donkey Sanctuary (RBDS) in the Edna Valley. There, I learned that they are gentle, playful and loving creatures who can’t wait to give a friendly nudge of their heads to tell you they want their famously long ears scratched or their necks petted.

“They are very appreciative of affection,” says Jim Eckford, who, along with his wife Carlen, owns the 501c that rescues donkeys from places as far away as Texas.

Whether called a donkey or an ass, I was happy to learn some fun facts about them: They can live to age 50. A male donkey is called a “jack.” A female is called a “jenny.” A young donkey is a “foal.” When a jack mates with a mare, the result is a “mule.” When a stallion mates with a jenny, a “hinny” is the result. There are more than 40 million of them on the planet, but the African Wild Ass is a critically endangered species.

Jim and Carlen began rescuing donkeys in 2002, and while caring for them is a round them clock job, they have never looked back.

“We saw there was a real need for this,” Jim says. Some of the ways donkeys make it to RBDS are through being abandoned by their owners, from neglect, and even being saved from the slaughterhouse. There are 13 resident donkeys at RBDS, as well as one mule named Ruby.

Donkeys are part of our collective consciousness. A donkey has been the symbol of the Democratic Party since the 1830s. They are mentioned 88 times in Shakespeare. We have colloquialisms such as “donkey's years” to refer to a long period of time, and “talking the legs off a donkey” describes an especially loquacious person.

Almost the moment we arrived at the corral gate, Jim introduced us to “Bo,” “the unofficial greeter,” who comes right over to say hello. Once inside, we are presented with some of the other residents of the corral: Tutti, rescued from a Texas slaughterhouse and who was, unbeknownst to anyone, about to give birth to Bella Luna.

Then there was Norton, who Jim describes as “the most playful of all.” After getting his head rubbed and his ears scratched, Norton went to an open space on the ground and had an obviously fun time rolling on his back in the dirt. Getting quickly back on his feet, he brayed, then trotted to a place nearby and went happily to sleep.

Over the years RBDS has grown to the point where they now have a full-time employee. Like all 501cs they rely on donations to keep going. Vet bills alone are a major expense.

Many of the donkeys come to RBDS with physical problems such as their hooves needing to trimmed (if left untrimmed they continue to grow until the animal is almost lame) to needing to recover from physical mistreatment. Jojo, for example, was the victim of rodeo-style roping practice, being lassoed and then having his feet tied together. “In spite of this, he is as affectionate and loving as he can be.”

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Mark James Miller is an Associate English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and President of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at [email protected]m


About once a week we get this question:

“I would like to get a donkey to guard my animals”.

Contrary to this widely held belief, donkeys do not want to guard other animals. They will, however, ferociously defend themselves if they feel threatened. Also, animals like goats, sheep, chickens, and dogs/cats can be injured or killed by a donkey’s rough and tumble playing.

Important aspects of donkey adoption that are overlooked are:

  1. Donkeys need a buddy. So, we advise against adopting a donkey that is going to be by himself. Either adopt two donkeys or have other equines for him to hang with.
  2. Having donkeys, like keeping horses and mules, requires:
  • An equine veterinarian for administering vaccinations, routine exams, dental work, and that is available in emergencies.
  • A farrier for hoof trimming about every 6 weeks.
  • Daily feeding, grooming, hoof cleaning, and daily exercise opportunities.
  • Facility cleaning and maintenance.

The reward for all this effort and responsibility is a smart (smarter than a horse), animal friend, that is a hoot to be around. Looking into the eye of the donkey can give you a wonderful, calming feeling.

Answering the donkey ownership question has become so routine that we plan to put together an informative brochure on the subject and we are thinking about creating a donkey ownership presentation / demonstration / and tour when we get to our new Rancho Burro property,

This new facility development is taking longer than we would like (no surprise) due to COVID and the time it has taken to get our “ducks in a row” and the County to issue the permits. The new property is located at 4855 Righetti Road, SLO, Ca. You can find it with Google maps. It is the 45-acre piece (a creek bisects it) on the SE side of the intersection of Righetti and Cayote near the San Luis Obispo city limits.


A recent, and terrifying event at Rancho Burro was a breakout of the donkeys that resulted in one getting hit by a car. Somehow a back gate was mysteriously opened at night fall, and 10 of the donkeys “hit the road”! Unfortunately, Tutti (pictured with Carlen), our sweet 8-year-old, was picked off by a hit and run woman that we would like to find. Miraculously, she is OK. She has no broken bones and no internal injuries. At the time of the incident there were many great people and vehicles stopping and attempting to help get the donkeys home.

We have three new rescue donkeys here at Rancho Burro. Chili, Dory and Casanova. They came from a lady in Paso Robles Ca. whose health had failed to the point where she could not care for them. One of the three, Chili, with the coat on, is a sweet 30-year-old that is desperately in need of help. She is very emaciated and needs to be given the type of feed that can be processed by an older animal like her. Food like processed hay pellets as opposed to raw hay and straw. Our vet came out, examined them, and took samples for diagnosis.

We have now closed on the new Rancho Burro property at 4855 Righetti Road, SLO, Ca.

Isaman Design in SLO, Ca. has been contracted to handle the architectural aspects of this new 45acre site. The extra space will give us the ability to take in more homeless donkeys and provide them with a more appropriate topography to roam. This landscape will more approximate the healthy, open range grazing life they would experience in the wild.

Rancho Burro is embarking on a plan to move to a new facility … a facility capable of providing a better environment for our current animals as well as additional barn space for more needy “long ears”. Another benefit will be much more pasture space for them to roam. It is heart breaking when we have to pass on taking in donkeys that need a home due to space limitations. We have clearly outgrown our current location which is primarily a rural residential, people centric neighborhood. For our new “donkey focused” facility, we have purchased a former cattle ranch in the Edna valley of San Luis Obispo, Ca. This nearby, 45 acre property, is undeveloped land so we face a big project involving electric power, water, roads and ultimately, buildings and pastures.