Bonnie Jo Campbell's Smart, Stubborn Friends

Jun 25, 2020

Donkeys Don Quixote (left) and Jack at home in Comstock
Credit Courtesy Bonnie Jo Campbell

Many of us are spending more time with our pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. In most cases they’re cats or dogs – but not always.

Writer Bonnie Jo Campbell has been visiting her mom’s donkeys. “These are two males,” she explained, “it’s a father and son. The father is named Jack and the son is named Don Quixote.” (Or Donkey Otie – more on that later.)

She told us about them, and the noises they make, as part of our series on your sounds of the pandemic. She also mentioned that she's working on a novel "about a girl named Donkey."

Jack is 20 and Don Quixote is 18, which is somewhere between young and old if you’re a donkey.

“The mother of the son, Don Quixote, she gave birth at age 40,” Campbell noted.

Campbell said she was going to teach Jack and Don Quixote to pull a cart but never got around to it. Now she goes over to feed them dinner. As they wait for their food, the donkeys make a sound that Campbell calls “he-honking.”

“It’s an area where there are not any other animals, and so there’s a lot of people in the neighborhood who are just very confused about what that noise is when they hear it coming through the trees. And the noise really carries!” she said.

Campbell said some donkeys love everybody, but Jack and Don Quixote are particular. Also, they hold a grudge against Campbell’s brother.

“He just had to one time get them home when they had run off,” she said, “and they just don’t like him anymore, so he has to suffer under their glare when he feeds them.”

“I think they’re smarter than horses,” she added.

“As an example, once Jack got his foot through – you know what woven wire fence is that you put around pastures, he got his foot through it and it was older fence, it was not straight.

“And he patiently waited for hours for me to come and get his foot free, and I think most horse owners live in dread of something like that happening, because the animal will panic and kick and kick and hurt him or herself.”

Bonnie Jo’s mother, Susanna Campbell, agrees that donkeys are smart. “They’re more stubborn than horses,” she added. “They definitely have a mind of their own.”

Campbell said she’s had donkeys since 1969.

“I was doing horse trading and I kind of switched around and for a while I had 10 donkeys, and since then I’ve just always had at least two donkeys.”

Right now that’s Jack and Don Quixote. Or Otie for short. According to Susanna, Bonnie’s husband Chris and Susanna’s late life partner realized that “if you said Don Quixote it sounded like Donkey Otie. So they started calling him Otie.”

There’s humor in Jack’s name too: “Males are called Jack and females are called Jenny.”

Bonnie spoils them, Susanna said, and Bonnie admits to it. "Part of why I love donkeys is because they carry the burdens of the world," she wrote in an email. "My taking good care of them (spoiling them) is part of trying to create justice in the world."

Donkeys’ intelligence makes them harder to train than horses, Susanna Campbell said. It also means you'd better watch your keys.

“I had left my farm tractor out in the field” once, she said, “and one of the donkeys had reached in and pulled the key out of the ignition and lost it. And that was kind of a surprise. So we learned, don’t leave any kind of farm implements in there cause who knows what they’ll do.”

For Bonnie Jo Campbell, bringing Jack and Don Quixote dinner has become a social occasion. Like many of us, Campbell’s had limited contact with people recently.

“Hanging out with the donkeys has taken the place of hanging out with my friends,” she said.

And that might continue for a while, though many things have reopened. Campbell says she’s still being careful where she goes.