A long-eared, fuzzy-faced old donkey named Blackjack, with heart-melting big brown eyes, started it all. Standing stately and secure now in his desert surroundings, it’s hard to believe that in 1997 he was headed to the slaughterhouse. Rescued by John and Tish Hiestand, Blackjack is now the mascot for a special sanctuary providing a safe haven for other abused and neglected donkeys.
Forever Home Donkey Rescue and Sanctuary, north of Benson, Arizona, officially opened its ranch gate in 1998 after John gave 10-year-old Blackjack to Tish as a birthday gift. Knowing donkeys have a herd mentality like horses, the Hiestands decided to get Blackjack a companion. Answering an ad in a Tucson paper, they discovered a severely abused donkey, bringing it home to doctor for six months before he died.
“That’s when we came to realize how much donkeys are neglected and abused due to being thought of as having no value,” Tish says. “Donkeys can be bought for $50 or less, so owners don’t think it’s worth it to call a vet for a $50 animal.”
With 30 acres of creosote bushes, mesquite trees and cacti, the Hiestand property proved ideal for a private donkey domain, offering a wide-open space to wander and native forage for food. According to Tish, a donkey’s natural behavior is that of a browser. “This is an animal that should walk 15 to 20 miles a day in the desert and pick up a little piece of food here and there.”
At Forever Home, the maximum number of rescued residents is 23, with 21 donkeys and two mules currently in residence. (There are no rescue organizations specifically for mules.) It’s become one big, happy, furry family for the Hiestands. Arriving at the ranch (reservations are required), a guest is greeted with the joyous sound of braying and hee-hawing. The welcome committee consists of John and Tish along with Lucy and Buster Brown.
Every donkey has a heartbreaking story. Buster was captured in a Bureau of Land Management herd at 6 months of age in 1990 and adopted by a man for his grandchildren. The youngsters were afraid of the donkey, so Buster was passed from one owner to another for years until the Hiestands advertised for free donkeys. By then, he was so traumatized, he was suspicious of people. Then he met Lucy.
Lucy, probably born in 1989, was going to be put down due to bad feet and wildness. She also gave birth to a little jenny, so the Hiestands found a home for them. Lucy developed guttural pouch disease, requiring surgery. Since the owner couldn’t afford the expensive operation, Tish and John paid for the procedure, then brought Lucy home to recover. Buster fell in love, and the two are inseparable.
With these two equine escorts hugging your side for ear scratches – “They’re like companionable dogs,” John says – the Hiestands give free tours of their corral complex where the donkeys are bedded down every night and given breakfast, plus medications, in the morning.
“Most donkeys arrive with health problems,” Tish says. “We’re basically an assisted-living home for them.”
During the day, the donkeys and mules roam the property. When released, all but Tula will walk up for a scratch or hug. Coming from a Native American reservation, Tula’s tale began with her baby, Paloma. Paloma developed untreatable colic and had to be euthanized. To this day, Tula has a deep mistrust of humans despite the Hiestands’ gentle care.
Then there’s Sha’ba, the oldest donkey at 40-plus years. In his lifetime, he suffered a broken fetlock, became blind in one eye, had a hole punched in his nose (probably for a cord or chain to lead or tie him), lost teeth down to the gums and had both ears cut off. By the time Sha’ba arrived at Forever Home, he had shut down mentally as well. In the hands of the Hiestands, a miracle occurred.
“Sha’ba’s spirit was healed,” Tish says. “He’s the sweetest and most forgiving donkey we have.”
Forever Home houses all three sizes of donkeys: miniatures (below 36 inches tall); standard (36 to 54 inches); and mammoth (above 54 inches).
“Civilizations were built on the back of donkeys, and, in Third World countries, a man with a donkey is considered prosperous,” John says. “But since they’re beasts of burden, they only live seven to nine years because they’re worked to death. When cared for, their life span can be up to 50 years.”
“However, in our country,” Tish says, “donkeys are often viewed as vermin, lacking intelligence and personality. But the opposite is true. They’re smart and sociable.”
Unfortunately, abuse is common. The Hiestands mainly see three types of abuse.
The first: donkeys used for roping practice. The practice is illegal, but continues since calves have a higher monetary value. In such a situation, one of three things will happen: A donkey will break a leg, break its neck, or its spirit will be broken. The Hiestands contend that legislation needs to be passed classifying donkeys as companionable animals instead of livestock.
Starvation and over-feeding are the other forms of abuse seen by the Hiestands. The latter Tish terms as “being killed with kindness.” When a donkey gains weight, it stores fat in its neck and hindquarters. Called bubble butt, the donkey’s rear end protrudes beyond the tail. Most of the donkeys at Forever Home are overweight, and a few are being treated for insulin resistance, a condition comparable to diabetes in humans. All diets are closely monitored by John and Tish, with help from local vets.
At Forever Home, donkeys and mules thrive because of the care and love of the Hiestands. Occasionally, a donkey can be adopted after an extensive home study; most, however, will remain with John and Tish.
“This is the end of the road for them,” Tish says. “We’re helping the ones we can.”