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T&T’s disappearing donkeys

Published: 
Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Almost 400 years after the arrival of the humble donkey to Spanish colonial Trinidad and its subsequent presence almost everywhere on the island, ten-year-old Jaeda Nicholls of Curepe has never seen one ‘live’.

Jaeda is by no means an exceptional case among children her age who now have relatively easy access to live giraffes, lions and tigers, but have never witnessed the once ubiquitous donkey in action.

The fact is the Equus Asinus that has been with us (via Spain) since the 1600s as a plantation helper and transportation engine is quietly disappearing even from familiar rural terrain.

Ask the youngsters about “the people with the donkey” in Lopinot and you get a blank stare. Enquire of the more mature and you get a knowing smile, then the shake of the head. “Not anymore,” said one woman en route to La Pastora.

In Acono, Maracas Valley, people remember “Dino” who had a few donkeys, but now neither Dino nor his donkeys can be found. Two men repairing a wall along the way believe he has now moved to Maracas Bay. Nobody knows what happened to the donkeys.

Then there is Sangre Grande Regional Corporation chairman, Terry Rondon, who knows of “two guys in Sans Souci who still ride their donkeys to go into their land” while “Lennox” and “Charlie,” who once raced in the nowdefunct Donkey Derby hosted periodically by the Arima Race Club, have died.

Rondon, who grew up in Matelot, says he has “vivid memories” of donkeys in the community. “They were part of life in Matelot and were a joy,” he told T&T Guardian. “But it is modern times and they are no longer needed and you don’t even find donkey grass (Panicum trichocladum) again.”

Sans Souci estate owner/ animal lover, Valerie Bowen, says it was not long ago “when passing through from Valencia to Toco, I remember seeing donkeys tethered to the side of the road grazing happily … and when we reached you would see farmers riding through their estates on their donkeys.

These are sights that have gone from our countryside completely.”

Agriculture minister, Clarence Rambharat has been lobbying for a place for the resilient farmland animal, not necessarily as a working breed but as an animal future generations should know more about.

As a consequence, donkeys are included as part of the master plan for the Emperor Valley Zoo. President of the Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ZSTT), Gupte Lutchmedial confirms the feisty farm animal will eventually make an appearance at the zoo as a permanent resident.

Sourcing donkeys domestically for such a project may, however, turn out to be problematic and the zoo may have to turn to Guyana and/or Suriname to supply the animals. There are other source countries nearby where donkeys continue to prevail.

In Antigua, some years ago for example, stray donkeys began posing a problem with vehicular traffic and were being neglected and abused, so a local NGO developed a Donkey Sanctuary where about 150 “donkeys at risk” currently reside.

There is a similar facility in Bonaire where close to 400 donkeys live. The animal was originally taken to the island as a beast of burden in saltmining operations, farming and for civilian transportation, but with the introduction of mechanised farming and motor vehicles, their use in such roles declined sharply. Today, many of them roam the dry landscape unsupervised and in danger.

In T&T, donkeys are difficult to find, but mention of them is an enduring feature of the political lexicon and other culturally-significant artefacts—Dr Eric Williams’ “let the donkey bray” and Jack Warner’s “donkey logic,” The Burrokeet (donkey man) who persists as representative of ole-time mas’, and the “donkey eye” charm once found in many rural handbags.

But people like Bowen see a continued role for the actual animal as part of rural life.

“They can still go where no vehicle can go, but can also be used for things like eco-rides into the forest to see the beauty of our country,” she said.

Donkeys were also used in the early years as a reliable form of public transportation.

Tobagonian media-man Anthony R. Hector remembers donkeys as “the form of transport we used.”

Throughout the sugarcane lands of Caroni, the animal was similarly used as a form of family and community transportation as the engine for “donkey carts” carrying people, groceries, building material and crops.

Coconut, banana and other fruit vendors once used them as part of their mobile operations and donkey rides used to be regular features of country fairs in both islands.

Author Joanne Johnson’s The Donkey and the Racehorse tells about a donkey with a dream of riding the racehorse circuit.

But Arima no longer hosts them and, for the moment, the hard-working creature known for its obstinate nature and incredible toughness may have to settle for a fancy stall at the zoo and the gaze of those unlikely to see them anywhere else in the near future.

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