A conflux of events brought forth the best of neighbors and caregivers, acts of generosity, and the worst of heartbreak.
Ashfield, MA resident Katya Smyth had wanted donkeys all her life. Now with a place of her own with a barn, it was just the place to bring home her hearts’ desire. They were three Sicilian donkeys, also known as Miniature Mediterranean donkeys, available through the South Ackworth, NH based nonprofit, Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue (SYA), that had to be adopted together. They were 15- to 16-year-old Minerva, her offspring, Daisy, and their best friend, Luna. Smyth brought the trio home in July.
Through the adoption process, Smyth met Ashfield’s Joan Gemme, an SYA volunteer since 2007 and currently its vice president. SYA recently adopted out 35 donkeys and mules, personally surrendered from owners in New England and New York. They have adopted out 281 over seven years. “Most of our animals come from divorces or people get too old and can’t keep them any longer. It’s an amazing job finding homes for them,” said Gemme. Gemme owns a jenny, Tilly, and her son, Oscar, a gelding.
SYA stresses adopting two donkeys, or having another equine at home, as, “you can’t leave a donkey alone. They get very depressed, especially if they have been friends and the friend has been taken away,” said Gemme.
Back on the other side of Ashfield, Minerva, Daisy and Luna had been doing great. In December, they had their semiannual vet checks. Then two days later, on Dec. 28, Daisy became ill. By the next day, she was listless, fell down and couldn’t get up. She had no fever. In fact, she had a low body temperature, reported Smyth. They drove her to a branch of Tufts — Cummings Veterinary Center in Grafton, MA — where they suspected botulism, due to her symptoms.
As a precautionary measure, the two other donkeys received antitoxin. There is a risk that horses and donkeys can get botulism from ingesting round bales, but these donkeys were fed first cutting square bales, noted Smyth. She drove two more times to Grafton within 24 hours. Daisy died in her arms on New Year’s Eve.
A short while later, Luna started having trouble walking and was brought to a neighbor’s heated barn. “She was increasingly weak and then couldn’t stand, but was trying to raise herself, even in a heated barn.” In addition, “it was the night that broke all the records for how cold it was, -26 degree windchill factor,” and just after a snowstorm.
Given what had happened to Daisy, Smyth wanted Luna to be trailered to the hospital, accompanied by Minerva so neither of them would be stressed by being alone.
Called in for advice, Gemme assisted Smyth in calling farmer after farmer, searching for a trailer. “It was just after the first of the year [and] people hadn’t registered their trailers yet. We had one, but it had an electrical problem,” said Gemme.
When Smyth called Ashfield’s Ben Murray, owner of nearby Redgate Farm, he said yes and arrived in 45 minutes. Because Luna couldn’t walk, Murray and his farm team carried her 200 to 250 pounds in a sling up a steep icy incline, protecting her dangling legs. They took her to Tufts. She recovered there for three weeks, then was in rehab for one and a half weeks.
“I did that trip every other day for four and a half weeks,” said Smyth. “They tested for everything, including deficiencies” and found nothing. When Luna recovered, Murray trailered the two donkeys home. A week and a half later, Luna had a rapid onset illness. “She couldn’t walk. She had complete muscle failure, but was not stiff. She was unbelievably weak,” said Smyth. Luna died before the vet could get there.
“We have a lot of questions. It’s completely unusual. The vet hospital was stumped — shocked that Luna died,” said Smyth. “It’s also now not at all clear it was botulism, given Luna’s death.”
Smyth said, “It’s a mystery. Nothing adds up. It just doesn’t. They were really healthy. They did a necropsy on Daisy; nothing showed up. We miss them a lot.”
Since then, they have been in contact with the Donkey Sanctuary in England, talking with other donkey experts, seeking answers, and moving on.
Her regular vet, Dr. Stephanie Vassar of Great Falls Equine said, “One of the most frustrating thing of veterinary medicines is the fact that — in medicine in general — you don’t get answers, no matter how much you investigate. Daisy’s early signs were consistent with botulism. Donkeys in general can have problems with the extreme cold — definitely the minis — in generating their body heat, and the amount of fat stored in their body.”
Considering the two deaths, “It’s hard to connect them. There are similarities and differences,” said Vassar.
No matter what the underlying cause was in Daisy’s or Luna’s case, botulism is not an owner’s first go-to guess when a horse is ill. But it should be considered. Dr. Vassar cautions that botulism is much more common in horses that are fed round bales, or exposed to dead animals. Of the seven known strains of C. botulinum, types A and B are acquired through forage sources. Exposure to dead animals — such as a decaying animal in feed — causes type C.
Botulism can enter through wounds, such as the umbilical wounds in foals which results in the shaking associated in Shaker Foal Syndrome, minimized by applying iodine to the foal’s navel. It can be found in the soil. Type B is the only strain for which there is a marketed equine vaccine, yet it is type specific and does not protect against types A or C.
“Symptoms include loss of facial expression, looking droopy or sleepy. They can get saliva drooling, loss of tongue tone. It looks like they’re have trouble eating their feed and trouble drinking, trembling, muscle weakness, shifting of their feet (as though the feet hurt). After shifting, they end up lying down. Eventually, if there is no treatment, they’ll die of respiratory failure due to muscle paralysis from the toxin,” said Dr. Vassar.
“We can treat and administer therapy with an antitoxin. It can help in supporting therapeutic measures, depending on how fast they get treatment. With horses or donkeys, they definitely have a high death rate because it is so hard to diagnosis. If you feed round bales, you need to vaccinate against botulism. Ask your vet about the vaccine,” said Dr. Vassar.
The reason botulism is so hard to diagnose is that its early signs resemble so many other emergencies, such as toothache and colic.
Currently Minerva is over at Gemme’s home, in the company of Tilly and Oscar, so she won’t be lonely. “She was really traumatized, losing her baby and her best friend,” said Smyth.
Smyth is ready to adopt another donkey, so Minerva can have a friend and can go home.