In many parts of the world donkeys are beasts of burden, earning their keep carrying heavy loads. But here in Franklin their diminutive cousin, the miniature donkey, can look forward to a work-free life living in the lap of luxury. ANGELA KEMP reports on the ultimate lifestyle pet.
When baby foal ‘That’s Amore’ was born in a warm stable at Clovercrest Miniature Donkey Stud just before Christmas, her birth was watched over by owner Marion van Dijk. She’d been monitoring her mother’s progress via a video link and had entered the stable when her arrival was imminent.
“I keep in the background just in case there’s a problem but there rarely is,” said Marion. “Donkeys are excellent mothers.”
That’s Amore was the first of four foals to arrive at the Runciman Road stud on the outskirts of Pukekohe this season. Marion and husband Peter have been loving and breeding donkeys since 1973 but took their hobby to the next level when the last of their four children left home.
“We called it “mid-life madness” when we decided on the very expensive venture of importing two jennies, one from Canada and one from the USA in 2001. We were determined to import only the very best of American Miniature Mediterranean blood lines with outstanding pedigrees.
“They are more than a hobby, they are our passion. They are more like dogs than horses in temperament and love human interaction.”
“They absolutely love their owners; they come when called, they like to be brushed, they are gentle and can take children for rides and pull a small cart. People also like them because they aren’t as intimidating as a large donkey.”
The couple used to run a poultry farm at the property but after Peter retired they devoted themselves to this delightful breed.
“It is purely a retirement hobby for us. We love them to bits. They are our kids now that our own have flown the coop.”
They currently have around 20 donkeys – 15 jennies (females) and three jacks ( studs) and the newborns. They says they are far easier to care for than other lifestyle animal choices such as sheep or alpacas.
“They mainly go to people who have a lifestyle block who want something quiet in the paddock. Sheep take quite a bit of looking after but donkeys are easy care.”
Marion says if donkeys are well cared for, it isn’t unusual for them to reach their 40th birthday or even older.
Their oldest donkey is Sparky Magnito, the first miniature donkey to be imported into the southern hemisphere.
“He’s 27 now and we bought him from his owners in Australia. He’s really going into retirement now but still gave us three foals last year.
“The biggest problem in New Zealand is controlling their weight as they can get fat easily. You can’t just put them into a paddock with knee high grass; they need to be really closely watched to make sure they aren’t getting too much. Often we lock them up at night in a small area with shelter to keep them off the grass.”
Not surprisingly the new foals are snapped up before they are born even with a current $2500 price tag for geldings and $5000 for a 6-month-old jenny foal. What’s more, there’s a waiting list.
“We take a lot of pride in our breeding programme and are aiming for well conformed, healthy, happy, loving little donkeys which we raise with lots of TLC.”
Breeding a donkey foal is a slow process. The jennies have to be at least three-years-old before they can be mated followed by an 11-13 month gestation period, which is longer than that of a horse.
“It’s another six months before the foals are weaned so it’s nothing like having a litter of eight puppies to sell, it’s just the one foal. “But we do it because it’s a passion and we love it.”
Foaling season at Clovercrest is September to January so the new borns arrive after the worst of the weather. “We don’t like winter babies as donkey’s coats aren’t very waterproof and they hate the rain.”
The couple have sent donkeys to most parts of Australia and New Zealand including to other breeders keen to introduce the Clovercrest bloodline into their own herd.
As well as the breeding programme, the van Dijks successfully show their donkeys and Peter uses one to pull an antique Sicilian carretto he imported from America.
“We enjoy taking the little donkeys out and about as miniature donkeys love meeting people and going to new places. We do community work – some of our donkeys take part in the SPCA/St Johns “Outreach” programme.
“They visit the elderly in rest homes and the sick in hospitals. Our donkeys have also taken part in quite a few Special Needs Children’s Christmas parties. The miniature donkey is ideally suited to working with the young, elderly and disabled because of their small size and docile personalities.
“Every year we participate in Auckland’s “Blessing of the Animals” on St Francis of Assisi day. We walk our donkeys in the animal parade up Queen Street and take them in to the Cathedral for the animal blessing service. We also display our donkeys at Pet and Horse Expos and SPCA Gala Days.
Senior Citizen bus tour groups visit their farm where the elderly like to reminisce about riding donkeys on the beach in their childhood.
Peter says people considering getting donkeys need to be prepared to spend time with them and make sure they have a donkey or pony for company as they are herd animals.
“They are without doubt the most charming, sweet natured and affectionate animals on earth. They are intelligent, easy-going and easily trained and become very attached to their owners and to other donkeys they live with. It’s no wonder then that they make the most wonderful pets for both young and old.”