They're as small as a medium-sized dog, but the miniature donkey business is kicking up a big storm across Canada.
Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than 400 donkeys registered in Canada, but the national registry for donkeys and mules now lists approximately 4,200 animals - about 3,100 of them miniature donkeys.
The popularity of the so-called "longears" is most evident in Alberta, where more than half of the miniatures live, followed by Ontario, B.C., and Saskatchewan.
"People started to take to the miniatures because of their com- fortable size, their gentle nature and personality," says Sharon Cooke, former president of the Canadian Donkey and Mule Association (CDMA), an organization established to preserve and promote longears.
|Photos by Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|Their gentle nature and comfortable size make miniature donkeys a natural choice for equine lovers and Krista Cooke, below, daughter of Sharon and Grant Cooke, who own a donkey breeding ranch south of Calgary, shows off her driving skills at the Calgary Stampede miniature donkey show.|
"They are also a good investment, with quality animals not losing in value."
Miniature donkeys measure no more than 36 inches at the shoulder. Donkeys larger than that are known as standards, and those measuring over 54 inches called mammoths.
They may be small packages, but these shaggy bundles can come with a hefty price tag, starting at about $5,000 for a breeding animal. Geldings start at about $500.
When Cooke first began holding an annual miniature donkey sale 13 years ago - Canada's first public sale of miniature donkeys - the animals sold for an average of $2,800. Last year's sale average was $6,400. "The quality animals have certainly gone up," says Cooke.
Besides breeding and showing, the donkeys are also used for trail and obstacles classes, as well as pulling a cart.
"Using donkeys for performance probably outnumbers those used for breeding. It's going great guns," says Cooke, who with husband Grant runs Circle C Livestock, near High River. The couple own approximately 150 miniatures, making them the largest breeder in Canada, and one of the largest in North America.
About 2,091 miniatures are registered in Alberta, with 313 in Ontario and 283 in B.C., according to 2003 federal livestock records. The donkeys are registered with the CDMA under the federal Animal Pedigree Act.
There are also many unregistered donkeys, kept as pets or pastured with sheep or goats for predator control. Most donkeys will defend a flock against dogs or coyotes. They are also used by ranchers to teach calves to lead at halter.
Donkeys are hardy creatures, requiring less feed than a horse. A desert animal, they tend to grow fat in lush pastures, and do much better on coarser feed.
Calm and small enough to work with physically or mentally disabled children, they are ideal for therapy, says Cooke. Properly trained, the donkey can be used for riding.
The animals have been a blessing for the Cookes, who also breed Black Angus cattle.
The longears have carried them through drought, low grain prices and sagging cattle prices. "They are BSE-proof. They can cross the border," says Cooke, thankful for the small critters ever since the Canadian cattle industry was decimated two years ago with the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in an Alberta cow.
After an initial investment of $4,500 each for six jennets (females) and $16,000 US for an American jack (male), it took only three years for the Cookes to turn a profit. Now, more than two-thirds of their farm income is derived from the donkeys.
Miniatures also appeal to hobby farmers and acreage owners who may prefer a smaller animal to keep pastures grazed, says miniature donkey breeder Virginia Allen of Oak Stables in Langley, B.C. "Once you get them, you just love them. They have so much personality," she says.
Allen, who also owns and trains horses, says people often feel guilty if they are not using their horses. "With the miniature donkeys, you still have an equine, but without the pressure to ride."
Many buyers purchase the donkeys as pets or as companion animals for lone horses, paying as much as $1,500 for a weanling jennet, says Allen.
"Miniature donkeys are easy to work with. The risk of an accident isn't as high, compared to working around horses," adds miniature donkey breeder Nancy Leduc, Ontario's CDMA representative. "Horses are generally more flighty, so it can take longer for you to feel comfortable around them."
Miniature donkeys are a true breed, native to the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Today, few remain in that region, but more than 20,000 are registered in North America.
Cooke's annual Canadian Rocky Mountain miniature donkey sale attracts hundreds of people from across Canada and the U.S., with phone bids placed from overseas. Two months ago, the Cookes shipped 12 miniature donkeys to Ireland for the new owner's foundation herd. About 70 per cent of their sales go to the U.S.
While the average price is usually between $5,000 and $6,000, successful bids can go much higher. In 2001, a solid black jennet named Black Magic sold for $31,000 - a North American record. "She had a flawless conformation and was a true black," says Cooke.
Solid blacks are unusual, fetching top prices. The most common colour is grey with a dark cross across the shoulders and down the back. Others may be spotted, dark brown or red.
The Cooke sale also benefits Alberta's Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS.) Since 1993, the Cookes have donated a gelded donkey to STARS, as a fund-raiser for the medical transport service. To date, the donated donkeys, all of them named High Flyer, have raised more than $65,000 for STARS.
Miniature donkeys also have become a popular attraction at the Calgary Stampede's annual livestock show. Since they first appeared in the ring in 1997, entries in the world miniature donkey show have almost doubled to 130. And last year, the show expanded from one to three days.
The U.S.-based National Miniature Donkey Association will hold its annual show later this year at the Calgary Stampede, the first time the event will be held outside the U.S.
While miniature donkeys attract many loving owners, they also attract a few strange phone calls. Leduc recalls a call inquiring about a donkey wanted for a cult sacrifice, and the Cookes have turned down potential buyers from Mexico who wanted to buy the animals for meat.
Buyers also need to be aware that donkeys can live to be 30 to 40 years old, and require regular hoof and veterinary care, as well as shelter, water and feed.
Since it first opened in 1991, the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, near Guelph, Ont., has taken in more than 100 neglected and abused donkeys from across the country, as well as the U.S. "I tell people they are a commitment. They can't be ignored," says Cooke.
Adds Leduc: "You have to think of donkeys as being an animal for life."
(Wendy Dudley enjoys the company of three donkeys and one mule, along with various other critters, on her farm in southern Alberta. She can be reached at email@example.com)