Miniature donkeys: can’t stop at just one

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RAVENNA, Ohio – When Fernando, the miniature donkey, was expelled from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 1988 for bad behavior, his future didn’t look too promising.

He was taken home by one of his keepers, and promptly escaped from his fence. He quickly became the subject of a “come take him off my hands” classified ad.

But Fernando turned out to be the answer to Cindy Fesemyer’s dream, and, by influence if not entirely by progeny, ended up founding the donkey dynasty now known as Wayland Hills Farm.

The herd of miniature donkeys that has followed Fernando into the Fesemyer barn and into their hearts has become a true devotion and a growing side endeavor for Cindy and David Fesemyer.

There to stay. When the Fesemyers’ children, a set of triplets now 4 years old, were born, friends and relatives thought they would be getting rid of the donkeys.

They never even considered it.

Both Cindy and Dave want their children to have the experience of growing up with these sweet, docile, personable little animals that Fesemyer says will “love you to death and climb on your lap if you let them.”

They are not stubborn, Fesemyer said, they are just very cautious. If they get into trouble or are not sure of something, they tend to freeze.

When one of his jennets got her hoof caught between boards in the barn in the middle of the night, he said, she froze in position and was still standing there when he found her the next morning, waiting for someone to come and help her.

Back home. Wayland Hills Farm, located on Wayland Road in rural Ravenna, Ohio, is Cindy Fesemyer’s home, the place where she grew up. The Fitzsimmmon family had owned the property since 1941.

Cindy and Dave bought the house and barn and 55 acres from her parents in 1992 after the miniature donkeys had come into their lives and they needed a good barn and more land to keep them.

Her parents built a new house not far away on the land they retained.

And although Dave Fesemyer is now the primary donkey person in the family, immersing himself in blood lines and exotic colors as he develops a registered herd, it was Cindy whose yen to have a donkey got them started.

She told Dave that she wanted a donkey, had always wanted a donkey, that there was something about them that drew her to the ancient little beasts of burden.

Such kind eyes. “They have such kind eyes,” she said, “and I liked the cross on their back.” The classified ad they answered took them to Fernando and their first miniature donkey.

The National Miniature Donkey Association has described these diminutive members of the equine family as “without a doubt the most adorable, affectionate, soft and cuddly creatures in the animal kingdom.”

Falling immediately in love with Fernando, the Fesemyers found they had to have more.

They have had as many as 16 donkeys in their herd. It usually runs between 12 and 16 head.

The zoo’s problems with Fernando, Fesemyer said, were probably because he had been raised by himself and was kept by himself at the zoo. He was never properly socialized.

Companions important. Donkeys are highly social animals, and don’t do well if not paired with other donkeys or animals. Some are used as companion animals for horses or sheep. They are often used as foal or stable companions to calm young or nervous horses.

When Fernando became part of a herd, his behavior became much calmer.

In fact, when Fesemyer recently decided, after 13 years, to sell Fernando to a friend, he sold him as a pair.

Donkeys do develop friendships and a social order, he said. The jennets all have special girl friends they hang with, and personality conflicts within the group are common.

But they are also uncommonly gentle and loving, seeking attention with nudges and little noises. And they don’t mind being ridden, even by kids.

Not true miniatures. Miniature donkeys are not true miniatures, in the sense that they have been bred down from standard donkeys by selective breeding for size.

They are a distinct species that originated in Africa and were brought into the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Sardinia to be used as farm and cart animals.

Although they are quite sturdy and are capable of carrying a heavy pack or pulling a cart, they are typically kept as pets.

The Mediterranean donkeys were first imported into the United States in 1929 by Robert Green, a New York stock broker, who wanted to raise them on his farm in New Jersey.

Another Columbus. The first jack born on his farm was named Christopher Columbus when it was born on Columbus Day.

He sold some of his stock in the 1930s to Richard Sagendorph, Henry Morgan, and August Busch Jr., who then imported a few more animals from Italy to create their own herds.

These initial herds are the stock from which all miniature donkeys in the United States and Canada have descended. There are now about 10,000 in North America.

And in recent years, 200 miniature donkeys were imported from the United States into Great Britain to start a miniature donkey craze there.

They are now considered extinct in the Mediterranean islands where they came from.

American breed. Standard size for miniature donkeys is about 33 inches at the withers for jennets, with the jacks preferred to be somewhat smaller to avoid foaling problems. The original Mediterranean donkeys were closer to 36 inches.

Fesemyer is working toward including the more exotic colors in his herd. The basic miniature donkey color is gray, with brown or chocolate a recessive color that is less common.

Rarer colors. More rare and most highly desirable by miniature breeders is the true jet-black donkey, the animals that are so dark the stripe down the back is totally invisible.

There are also sorrel donkeys and white donkeys.

Spotted donkeys come from an original non-albino white stock, crossed with other colors to produce gray or brown spots.

Fesemyer said his first sorrel appeared quite unexpectedly from a cross between two browns. A second cross with the same pair produced the same result, and he found himself becoming infatuated with the color.

Last year he bought two sorrels, including a jack. That was his start into a new interest in color. Since then he has bought a jet-black jennet, and a spotted jack.

He said he would love to have a black jack, but the prices are higher than he wants to pay. A smoky black jack, he said, has a minimum price of $3,000. A jet-black would be even higher.

Spot challenge. Breeding for spotted donkeys can be a little trickier since the spots are not a fixed genetic trait. They may or may not come through even when two spotted donkeys are mated.

A spotted jack mated to any other color jennet has no more than a 50 percent chance of producing a spotted offspring, and any nonspotted offspring will never produce spotted progeny.

“Some people find the spotted donkeys ugly,” Fesemyer said. “But those who like them think they are the most interesting of all.”

With his new spotted jack, he hopes to add a number of spotted animals to his increasingly varied herd.

Lifestyle choice. The Fesemyers never planned on breeding miniature donkeys as a full-time business. They are both educators – he is an elementary school principal and she teaches. Raising donkeys, they said, is more of a “lifestyle choice” for them.

But they have also have found that selling miniatures has become increasingly more profitable as the popularity of miniature donkeys has grown.

Six years ago, Fesemyer said, he ran an ad and got only one or two calls. Now he is getting calls about his donkeys from across the country. He doesn’t have enough stock to fill all the interest, he said.

When they are sold as pets, he said, the prices range from $500 to $2,500, depending on the size and color. Jennets that will be used as breeding stock sell for $750 to about $3,500.

Wayland Hills Farm can be contacted at 330-358-2151.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at jcummins@farmanddairy.com.)

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