Hank the Orphan Donkey
Updated: Mar 11
On July 24th, 2020 our miniature donkey jennet Gracy gave birth to a small jack foal. Gracy was purchased earlier this year and was already in foal. She was 5 years old.
It was unclear exactly when she would foal and we did not know if she had given birth in the past. We typically wait until jennets are 3 years old to breed them. This allows plenty of time for the jennet to mature and have a healthy pregnancy. If all goes as planned they foal for the first time at 4 years of age.
We had been checking Gracy every morning and night for signs that she was ready to foal. We check the color of her milk (changes to color of 2% milk 1 to 2 days before foaling and whole milk the day before.), the shape of her udder (it becomes full and hard, the teats point slightly outwards) and the color inside her vulva (turns bright red within 24 hours). Gracy was bagging up but she had clear milk and her udder did not seem to be full. It was a surprise when she had her foal. Karl fed the donkeys their dinner and there was no foal. We sat down to eat our dinner on our porch and the donkeys began to bray and carry on. It was so strange that Karl walked over to the fence and noticed a foal had been born.
There were maybe 10 jennets in this pen. I ran into the pen and went to the foal. Evangeline, a sweet older jennet was guarding the foal as if it was hers but she was still pregnant. Adelma and Bernadette, 2 of our yearlings were also forming a circle around the foal as if to protect it. The foal was still wet and had just stood up, still unsteady on his feet. There were 2 jennets that were most likely to have foaled and I looked for them. They were both still in foal. It was then I noticed Gracy expelling her placenta. She was maybe 20 feet away from the foal. I picked up the foal and Karl haltered Gracy and we brought them both into a foaling stall.
We placed the foal down near Gracy's shoulder so that she would start to clean her foal and bond with him. She immediately put her ears back and seemed annoyed that he was near her. When we guided him towards her udder to encourage him to nurse she kicked out at him. She was so aggressive towards him we could not leave the 2 unattended. We had a maiden jennet once that did not understand that once the foal nursed it would relieve the pressure in her udder. We gave her a sedative and hobbled her back legs. We soothed her and guided the foal. After several hours the jennet accepted the foal and was a wonderful mother.
We tried the same with Gracy. We were able to let the foal nurse multiple times but needed to hobble both
front and back legs as well as sedate Gracy and use a humane nose twitch. This sounds extreme, I know, but it is so important for the foal to nurse from the mother immediately and get enough colostrum. Colostrum is produced by the dam before her milk comes in and provides antibodies and nutrients that are needed for the foal to grow and fight disease. The Foal IgG SNAP test measures the antibody level in a foal's blood. The foal's ability to absorb the colostrum lessens with every hour that goes by after birth. If not enough Colostrum is absorbed the foal needs to be given a plasma transfusion. Foals are so small and frail. Their condition can go down hill quickly. The mother's colostrum is the best way for the foal to take in antibodies, giving him the greatest chance for survival.
During the first 24 hours we divided the stall in 2 with a see-through panel between Gracy and Hank (the foal) with the hope that she would accept him. We added bottles with milk replacer in between feedings from Gracy because he was clearly looking for more food and hungry. After 8 hours Gracy started to colic. I have included a video of her. It was a severe case. The vet came out a tubed her. There were no sounds in her small intestine and only faint sounds in her large intestine. It was now 11 pm and Gracy was not passing any manure and drinking very little. I contacted my friend and donkey mentor, Dayle Haworth owner with her husband Joe of Half Ass Acres
. She suggested a ride in the trailer to encourage her to pass manure. Off we went for a ride around Stafford. She passed manure just a few miles into the ride. The vet gave her a slightly better chance than 50/50 to survive the colic. Thankfully, she made it.
We returned her to the jennet pen after 2 days knowing that she would be most comfortable there. We brought Hank to the fence a few times to see if there was any connection but there was none. Gracy made a full recovery.
Hank was quick to bond with Karl and with me. Karl gives him his 5 am bottle and then lets him follow him around in the greenhouses while he checks all of the plants. I have included a video
of this and the first day that Karl brought Hank in the house for his morning bottle. We use a Pritchard nipple on a 1 liter soda bottle. We feed every 2 to 4 hours.
the foal gets older and bigger. If you watch a bonded jennet and foal you will notice how they push their foal around. It almost seems like they are trying to hurt the foal but they aren't. They are setting limits and being good mothers. The jennet will not let their foal nurse, sleep or wander away too long. She will push him with her nose or paw him with her foot to get the behavior to stop or change. When dealing with the orphaned foal it is important for the humans they interact with to be firm and discipline. The foal will build a healthy relationship with his human family and mature to be a well behaved donkey.
We put a sweet, gentle yearling jennet named Scarlett in the stall with Hank so that he has donkey companionship. Hank will be going to a terrific home with Otis, another little jack foal. (Both will be gelded. Jacks do not make good pets.) We schedule play dates every day for Hank to be in with Scarlett, Otis, Otis's mother and sometimes other foals and mothers so that he learns from them how to be a donkey.
After 2 weeks Hank had cut his new teeth and was experimenting with eating hay, grass and grain. Most often we find him in the stall next to Scarlett. She is eating her hay and Hank watches and has a long piece of hay sticking out of his mouth not sure what to do:-) Then we feed him his bottle.
It is not known why jennets sometimes reject their foals. We are grateful to all who have helped care for Hank and Gracy. Special thanks to Dayle Haworth for being the best donkey mentor and to David Mordasky, DVM for always being there for foaling and donkey emergencies.