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(photo credit: Courtesy, Wings of Love)
I arrive at the Wing of Love park at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem one morning and notice that, unusually, three people are standing in the donkeys' yard. "Shlomi," 17 (his name has been changed to protect his privacy), is hugging the largest, lightest-colored donkey. "Hi, Michele!" he calls out, prompting me to veer from my path to go over and see what's happening. Netta, our animal specialist, stands opposite Shlomi and is helping to hold the donkey, which wriggles uncomfortably between them. The third person is a young woman whose right arm is buried, almost to the elbow, up the donkey's backside.
The female donkey (a "jenny") is pregnant and not well. She keeps falling down and no longer has the strength to get up, so Netta has called Dr. Bar Eytan, a young vet. Shlomi and Netta are trying to calm and reassure the donkey during the unpleasant examination.
"The baby seems to be fine," says Eytan, pulling out her arm. The vet explains that the jenny may be suffering from an illness caused by acute stress, such as advanced pregnancy. Eytan recommends supplementing the donkey's diet to strengthen her. "You can see that her legs are very scarred and damaged; they're apparently now too weak to support her heavy belly," she points out.
The animal's damaged legs are the result of abuse. Her Beduin owners often tied a rope around her legs to keep her from running away, as well as forcing her to carry overly heavy loads for too long at a time. Her teeth are broken, another sign she was mistreated and then abandoned when she could no longer bear burdens. The jenny was first spotted some weeks ago, wandering aimlessly in the nearby hills. Shlomi and one of the kibbutz members went after her, bringing her to our park for shelter and care.
Donkeys have been used around the world and throughout history. Genesis tells that Abraham saddled a donkey for his journey with Isaac up Mt. Moriah: the donkey carried wood. Later, in Exodus, Moses's wife and sons traveled to Egypt on a donkey. Jewish tradition says that the Messiah will appear at the end of days, riding on a white donkey. In the 1920s, an ancestor of mine used to stand on the terrace outside his Motza home every dawn, scanning the horizon, hoping for a sight of the white donkey that would change the world.
Today, our donkeys, whether black, gray or not quite white, are not about to carry the Messiah. They are, however, changing the way a handful of boys see the world.
Nowadays, only the poorest Jews and Arabs keep donkeys to pull carts, carry supplies, or as a means of transport. These animals are cheap (a donkey can cost as little as NIS 100) and when they fall sick or suffer an injury, their owners often leave them to die. Buying a new donkey costs less than arranging veterinary care and medicine for a suffering one.
Both the boys and the animals at the Wing of Love park have been scarred by lives of neglect or abuse, or both. The youths who shelter and nurture the seven donkeys are themselves in full-time care and undergoing rehabilitation. Our park provides both the troubled teens and the donkeys a chance to heal.
Shlomi, one of the 14 boys whom social services or the juvenile courts have sent to work with Wing of Love, joined us at the park a year and a half ago. He arrived at Kfar Menachem a small, lean 15-year-old who had been removed from his home in one of Israel's worst slums. Shlomi had been sentenced to one day of community service a week for stealing. In his home, money was needed for drugs. He spent more time on the streets than in school until the police nabbed him and a court sent him to the Wing of Love wildlife park.
While brusque and quick to fight back if provoked, Shlomi immediately took an interest in all the animals in the park. He learned quickly and chose to tend to the donkeys. At first, he watched them from behind a fence. Then, slowly, he approached them, speaking in a reassuring voice. Kindly. Shlomi brought them food and clean water. He led them from the stable to the field in the morning and back at the end of the day. He observed their attachments and rivalries, and came to understand their ways. In time, he taught the stronger donkeys to wear a harness and, on the park's occasional open days, gently helped small children onto their backs and guided them around the park.
Now 17, Shlomi has many scars. But he has taught the donkeys to trust him and they have taught him love and gentleness, and raised his self-esteem.
But what about the pregnant jenny? The days passed and she continued to fall over. Despite the enriched diet, she refused to eat. Every time she collapsed, Shlomi helped her up. But one morning he couldn't raise her, and it looked as though all she wanted was to die in peace. Shlomi, who had grown to love her, pleaded with Netta to call the vet. Netta warned him that the doctor would probably give the donkey an injection to help her die painlessly. Her time had come. Devastated, the boy sat on the ground next to the jenny, stroking her. When Dr. Eytan came, he pleaded with her to find some way to save the donkey.
Eytan knew that the only hope was to hospitalize the animal, but it would be expensive. Could Wing of Love, a struggling non-profit organization, afford such treatment for a battered old donkey? Wing of Love receives funding to rehabilitate youth at risk, not animals. It didn't make financial sense to pay the high hospital fees to keep the donkey alive. Had the sick animal been a rare species, worth thousands of shekels - a crowned crane or a wallaby - there would have been no hesitation about saving its life. But could we justify trying to save a weak, 20-year-old, pregnant donkey?
"Yes," Wing of Love director Boaz Miller said without hesitation, "For the donkey's sake and for the lessons this life-saving act [has] for Shlomi and the other boys. Life, even a donkey's life, is valuable. It's our duty to care for the animals in our midst, to do our best for their sakes, and to preserve their lives, if we can. Just as our boys hope for a good future for the donkey and her foal, Wing of Love hopes to help these boys have a good future."
Dr. Amir Steinman, the new director of the large animals department at the Beit Dagan veterinary hospital, concurred with Miller. Certainly, we should try to save the donkey's life and that of her baby, he said. Steinman helps animals in distress as a matter of principle. He kindly agreed to take in the old jenny for an affordable fee. Once hospitalized, she was put in a supportive sling that takes the weight off her feet. She started eating and drinking again and remained under 24-hour supervision.
A week later, in early November, she gave birth - with difficulty, but with expert help. That evening, Eytan called. "The mother looks well and happy, although her newborn is weak. The young foal is suckling and the hospital staff has fallen in love with this stoic pair. The staff's biggest problem now will be to part from them," she reported.
The Hebrew word for donkey is hamor, from the word homer ("material"). Lubavitcher hassidim teach that the Messiah's white donkey is material harnessed for a lofty purpose, for a higher end. Our donkey is not pure white, but she has moved all the people who have met her in recent weeks towards a higher awareness of the spark of life. Shlomi, who fought to save her, will soon leave rehabilitation a good worker, trustworthy, and a caring friend.
Dr. Michele Klein is a volunteer at the non-profit Wing of Love park for rehabilitating youth at risk.
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