Long-eared guardians, UF/IFAS donkeys are a sheep’s best friend

If you have been near Shealy Drive in Gainesville, you may be familiar with the UF/IFAS sheep unit. The 30-acre facility is home to 100 sheep that are bred and raised to improve recommendations on sheep nutrition, reproduction and physiology for sheep producers. When passing by the unit, you might also notice some long-eared friends in the pasture, two donkeys named Wilma and Pebbles.   

Two donkeys face the camera, ears up and looking at the photographer.
Wilma and Pebbles live at the UF/IFAS sheep unit and serve as livestock guardians for the sheep.

Four years ago, the UF/IFAS animal sciences department inherited the donkeys from a long-time employee who fell ill and passed away. The donkeys were not accustomed to being handled, which made caring for them extremely challenging. 

The animals needed routine dental work, hoof trims and grooming, and often, these basic husbandry tasks were stressful for the animals and caregivers alike. UF/IFAS associate professors Samantha Brooks and Carissa Wickens knew they had to do something to build positive donkey-human interactions and help minimize the stress level of the animals and the staff caring for them. 

They created a course for students to work on this special project and recruited 12 undergraduates who were determined to monitor the donkeys’ behavior and condition and to develop and apply preventative health care and training protocols to improve the animals’ overall quality of life. 

The students worked in teams to observe and begin establishing positive interactions with the donkeys. By the end of the semester, the donkeys received veterinary care, routine grooming and other care electively and without needing sedation.  

“These donkeys really needed some TLC, and to see how they turned around in just a couple of months was incredible,” said Brooks.  

Not only did the project help the UF/IFAS donkeys, but it allowed these donkeys to save lives. 

Farmers use donkeys for many functions, but one of the most notable is their ability to serve as guardians of smaller livestock more vulnerable to predation, like sheep. The donkeys protect the 100-head sheep herd and their lambs. Since the donkeys have joined the sheep herd, wildlife have not preyed on the lambs. 

If that was not enough – one of the donkeys, Pebbles, donated blood to help an injured donkey at the UF veterinary hospital that needed a blood transfusion.  

“We would have never dreamed of being able to take blood from any of these donkeys, but the timing of the project was just right, and when they asked for our help with the sick donkey we were just at the point that we felt Pebbles trusted us enough to be able to be a blood donor,” said Brooks. 

Beyond the donkeys saving lives, students participating in the project are learning and developing new skills. 

Three students stand with a donkey who is being groomed.
Students handle the donkeys each week with regular grooming sessions as seen here.

“This project didn’t just help the donkeys and the sheep, it provided a unique, hands-on opportunity for students,” said Wickens. “The students were able to explore animal husbandry and welfare applications in a real-life setting.”  

“Students applied knowledge gained during their undergraduate program in animal sciences to the care and management of their assigned donkey, but were also challenged to expand their expertise, to develop goals, monitor progress and address problems,” said Wickens. “This experience will serve them well in the future, for example, providing students with opportunities to learn about and work with long-eared equine species will help increase donkey owners’ access to trained professionals and educational resources.” 

Students noted the project as a team-building opportunity, in addition to other skills they learned. 

“We truly felt like a team by the end of the semester, and I am confident that we made a significant impact in the future of the sheep-unit donkeys,” said Makenna Owens, teaching assistant for the course. “This course was a great reminder of the importance of being open-minded and willing to learn, regardless of your experience. Even as a teaching assistant, there were many things I did not know. Being able to collaborate with other students was extremely valuable. These are all skills I will take into future educational and professional ventures, and I can always thank the donkeys for keeping me humble.” 

Next time you pass by Wilma and Pebbles be sure to wave or say hello.


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Posted: March 26, 2024

Category: Agriculture, Livestock, UF/IFAS, UF/IFAS Teaching
Tags: Animal Sciences, Equine, Livestock, Sheep, UF/IFAS Animal Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Sheep Unit

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