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Lady Liza, Donkey of Kew

North Caicos’ last donkey is a symbol of a bygone era and changing world.
By B. Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

North Caicos’ last donkey is a symbol of a bygone era and changing world.

By B. Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

Kew Settlement in North Caicos is a small town – perhaps a tiny town; for even calling it a one-horse town would give a person the impression that it is big enough to have one horse. Kew Settlement doesn’t have one horse. But it is very proudly just large enough to be blessed with one donkey.

Liza and the author

Liza and the author

The one donkey who graces Kew with her presence is named Liza. Someone once told me that all donkeys, as soon as they reach adulthood, look like they are 400 years old. Liza looks 400 hard, weathered years old. She may as well be several millennia. Who knows, she could have been the very beast of burden who bore the spiritually precious cargo from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Indeed “donkey years” is an expression referring to days of yore. Anyway, Liza is one decidedly ancient-looking burro. The first time I saw her, I compared her to a donkey I knew in my youth – Angelina was a Sicilian donkey I looked after when I volunteered at a zoo. Like all Sicilian donkeys, she was a miniature, just under three feet tall at the shoulder, but also nearly three feet wide. She was, as zoo animals tend to be, incredibly well-fed and since she had little to do but get pointed at by admirers all day, her stout body widened until I was certain I could lie down crosswise on her broad, flat back.

Compared to Angelina, Liza was haggard and bedraggled. The first time I saw her, she was grazing disinterestedly by the roadside at the eastern end of Kew. Her heavy “winter” coat was matted and flecked with bits of her lunch; smears of dried mud and mucous marked where she’d scratched her sides with her teeth or hooves. The thick mat of fur on her forehead was solidly tangled with burrs. Barring her generally unkempt appearance though, she was obviously healthy. She was robust, and bore a good balance of being well-fed and well-exercised. She might be a bit on the dusty side, I thought to myself, but give her a good solid brushing and she wouldn’t look a day over half a millennium.

It is appropriate that Liza looks ancient. Liza is a singular lingering reminder of yesteryear in North Caicos. Granted, yesteryear in North Caicos, by donkey terms, was not all that long ago. Only having been attached to the grid of development with paved roads and electricity since the early 1980s, North Caicos depended on donkeys for transportation no more than 30 years ago. It was sometime around the turn of this developmental era that Liza was born.

Determining Liza’s age has been an adventure in legend and oral tradition, and one that I embarked upon when Liza came to live with me in August of 2008. Her owner (who I remembered having seen ride her years earlier as she trotted waveringly down a then unpaved and narrow Bellefield Landing Road) had had to retire from being her personal steward (partially due to an incident in which said donkey dislodged said owner forcibly from her back). Liza needed a new steward, and dedicated donkey stewards are, surprisingly, simply not in good supply. It was my landlord who proposed that I take over the responsibilities relating to Liza, and remembering the pleasant-if-slightly-distant nature of Angelina, I accepted the responsibility to take care of her. And that is about when I had to re-learn everything that Angelina had taught me, because I found out that Angelina, wonderful as she was, just was not a good representation of an average donkey.

Liza is not necessarily an average donkey either, though. She’s average enough in that she is a standard – the most common type of donkey in the world. Standards are named for their size – their withers just about solar-plexus high to a tall man.  Donkeys shorter than a man’s waist, like Angelina, are miniatures. Donkeys large enough to mount a mare and perform the deeds necessary to produce mules are called mammoth jackstock (the notoriously large and aggressive feral donkeys on East Caicos are mostly mammoth jackstock, formerly used to breed mules there to pull the railcars on the guano mine railway). Standards are close to the size of the African wild ass, the rather colourfully named animal from which domestic donkeys are derived. Donkeys are ideal in that they are small enough to be easily manageable (at least when in a good mood), and large enough to carry loads upwards of 200 pounds.

Donkeys were probably one of the first animals domesticated as a beast of burden, and this domestication most likely occurred between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago somewhere in north-eastern Africa. African wild asses were well-adapted to the desert and scrubland habitats of the region: their bodies naturally conserve water, their long ears radiate excess heat, and their efficient digestive systems require nothing more than grass as fuel. They were also very well suited for domestication: they can easily carry a quarter of their own weight, their broad backs made good surfaces for packing or riding, and the milk of a jenny (female donkey) can be consumed by humans. By the time the great kings of Egypt were developing their funerary masterpieces, donkeys were common domestic animals in the Nile valley, and the artwork on the pyramids depicts this arrangement. Their ability to grow and shed hair as needed means they are adaptable to a wide range of climactic conditions. Their steady gait and habit of walking with one small hoof in front of the other means that they could not only make use of narrow roads, but of winding mountain paths. Donkeys have a popular reputation for stubbornness, but really, they just aren’t willing to do anything that they know will put them in harm’s way, and they are far too intelligent to respond well to anything but good treatment.

Rumours of stubbornness notwithstanding, donkeys spread first through the Middle East and then into Europe and Asia. Later, Spanish explorers brought them to the Americas, where they flourished in the American southwest and are still present as “burros.” Donkeys made their debut in the Turks & Caicos Islands as early as the 1650s, when Bermudian salt rakers travelled to the “Salt Islands” of South Caicos, Grand Turk, and Salt Cay seasonally to gather salt on the salinas. Donkeys walk long distances willingly, but they are patently poor seafarers and would rather not travel around on ships if given the choice. To ensure donkeys could be left in the Salt Islands between raking seasons, the Bermudians dug wells that the donkeys could access, and simply turned them loose to forage on their own when they returned to Bermuda for the rainy seasons.

When the Salt Islands were permanently settled, there was already a large supply of semi-feral donkeys available for the taking, and the skills of wainwrights and wheelwrights were employed to build donkey carts with large, solid wheels. These carts were used to transport salt, water, people, and goods as needed around an island. Eventually, as the Caicos Islands were settled during the Loyalist era in the late 1700s, donkeys were moved there for use on the plantations. Highly appreciative of routine, donkeys enjoy following a repetitive schedule day by day, a trait underscored by the story of a water-delivery donkey in Grand Turk who continued to make his daily rounds through Cockburn Town even after he had been retired. This tale has become canonised in the colourful children’s book, Where Is Simon, Sandy? Donkeys kept their usefulness straight through the Emancipation, during Her Majesty’s Royal Visit in 1966 (a donkey race featured prominently on the schedule of events), and up until the time around when Liza was born.

As I mentioned, determining Liza’s age has been an adventure in legend and oral tradition. The age of a donkey is important for a caretaker to know, because there are health concerns to consider as they age. Like most equines, donkeys can typically be age-determined by their teeth – the true age comes “straight from the horse’s mouth” in the ideal situation. Reading donkey documents reveals that the position and depth of a certain groove on a certain tooth should give a fairly accurate estimate as to the donkey’s age. So, one of the first things I did with Liza was to look at her teeth.

And I promptly shut her lips back up. Liza was clearly not going to be accurately aged by her teeth. The telltale tooth on each side was hideously twisted and curved, crooked and overlapping others, and there was barely a sign of the groove anymore. By her teeth, Liza was as I had suspected – not a day over half a millennium. By talking to people in Kew who remember her being around when they had their own children, and others who remember her being around when they were children (and others who remember her always being around) we determined that she was just about 30 years old in 2008. That’s not exactly half a millennium, and in fact it isn’t even ancient for a donkey. Donkeys are known to live well into their 40s given a good life. Liza was worked lightly: she was ridden occasionally and in her later years toted loads only consisting of freshly cut guinea grass for her own fodder. Liza was always tethered – this is typical practice of keeping donkeys in the Caribbean, where fences are difficult to maintain due to termites and pasture grasses are difficult to grow. Tethering consists of tying the donkey to a shade tree with a length of rope, in an area with plenty of green feed and a bucket of fresh water. When the green feed is finished, the donkey is moved and tethered in another spot. Provided the rope is long enough and the donkey is kept safe from harassment by dogs and unkind people, this system works, and Liza was well adapted to it.

Liza’s old tether was perhaps less than well adapted to her, though. Over the years the heavy, round rope had worn at her mane. Donkeys store fat for lean times, and they store it along the top of their neck. This thick layer of fat, covered by the coarse hair of the mane, lacks sensitivity and so she sometimes pulled the rope hard enough to cut the skin. Working with a few spare pieces of webbing strap, two stainless steel rings, and a borrowed sewing machine, I constructed Liza a comfortable collar that could be clipped loosely around her neck with a carabiner. Clip that to a new, strong rope with a swivel, and Liza was now much freer to move about without getting injured. Add a size F5 royal blue bridle from a donkey and miniature horse Ebay store and suddenly, she was the talk of the town.

The new fashion accessories didn’t change Liza though, and since Angelina had taught me most of what I knew about donkeys, and she was decidedly spoiled, I still had some learning to do. The first treat I offered Liza was that which is seen in every cartoon image of a donkey being encouraged – a carrot. Liza gave the carrot one sniff and promptly turned around and ignored it. So much for the accuracy of Saturday morning cartoons.

I found later that she did relish apples, but too many make her drool applesauce all over the place. She enjoys dried corn, but I was warned by some in-the-know people in Kew that corn can make donkeys “funny,” and indeed Liza gets a bit uppity and temperamental when she gets more than a mouthful of corn. She loves mangoes, and de-pits them by stepping squarely onto them with a deliberately placed hoof.

And speaking of deliberately placed hooves, Liza knew how to do something that Angelina never did. It is said that donkeys that are raised by other donkeys learn early on that kicking is not acceptable, but that donkeys raised by people only have to get their way by kicking one time to lead a lifetime of “I get what I want or I kick you” mentality. Liza, unfortunately, must have squared away a well-aimed footprint on someone’s sensitive regions very early on in her life, because even though she most often kicks erratically and haphazardly, she still possesses tremendous aim when she wants to. She only really kicks if she thinks she’s being separated from food that she wants (attempts to ride her or load her back are dealt with by the other end; she bites too), but after learning a few donkey control techniques I have avoided further bodily harm from Liza’s unpredictable temper fits.

One would think that a donkey that refuses to carry loads or riders and who kicks and bites would be rather unpleasant to be around. Liza is old enough to be retired – I hope to be able to acquire or build a cart for her, which is less stressful than being ridden but still provides good exercise – so her purpose for now is to enjoy that retirement. I try to make Liza’s retirement interesting for her, taking her on walks through the village (occasionally to visit her former caretaker) and through the trails in the bush, where she finds a favourite shrub, commonly called “donkey bread,” to eat. The highlight of these walks, for Liza, is rolling in the dust. When her hoof strikes a good sandy bit of ground, she begins dragging her nose and sniffing. Eventually she shifts and turns, then roughly falls to her knees, and lies down. Then, kicking and twisting, she rolls in the dust. The rolling performance is a favourite of the children of Kew and her other admirers, not because of the sight, but because of the incredible cacophony of gaseous digestive eruptions that occur during the rolls, and the astonishing auditory volume of the same. If you don’t believe me, look her up on Youtube. You know what to search for.

Despite the kicks, bites, and irrepressible flatulence, Liza has more good moments than bad. If nothing else, she is affectionate. She would much rather be with company than alone, and she enjoys being close enough to lean against a companion, nudge a friend’s chest, or even rest her head on the shoulder of a sitting confidant. She will stay like that for quite some time, just enjoying company. Occasionally she will free herself from her tether, and after munching a few papaya leaves – one of her favourite foods – she invariably heads toward people, usually my landlord or me, to seek out companionship. She takes pleasure in joining our neighbourhood roadside conversations, expressing her point of view with an occasional snort. Liza was a beast of burden at one point in her life, but she takes no shame in having transformed herself into an absolute and exemplary pet.

And who else has a pet donkey? At a conference I attended in Grand Cayman in May, I met a colleague on a conference social night who overheard me refer to “my donkey.” “You have a donkey? I have a donkey too!” Susan announced. Amazingly, she also has a last donkey – Lagerhead, the remaining donkey on Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, is in her care. We swapped stories about our equine friends – Lagerhead has a new, custom-built cart; Liza chased a cat down the road . . . and we lamented over the fact that no matter how much water you carry to your donkey, they always knock the bucket over before finishing it, and always need more. “It’s like the song!” Susan exclaimed. I knew the song. “Yes! Exactly like the song!” Two other colleagues nearby, who have lives tragically devoid of donkey companionship, asked simultaneously, “There’s a song?!” And so they were regaled with a truncated and poorly-performed rendition of the Harry Belafonte Calypso classic in question. No doubt most of those present left with the idea that my colleague and I were nothing short of Third-World-crazy . . . toting water to donkeys, riding in carts, making tethers . . . but I was happy to know that at least one other person out there is a donkey devotee.

Logistics prevent us getting Liza and Lagerhead together for a play date, but at least they both have their human companionship. Anyway, perhaps adding another donkey to the mix here isn’t in the best interests of the settlement. I can’t imagine Liza appreciating Kew as anything other than a one-donkey-town.

Facebook users will be happy to know that they can become fans of Liza and upload photos taken with her. Search for “Lady Liza, Donkey of Kew” to follow her activities and updates.



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