I met Eeyore very late. Unlike most kids, I never had the chance to read A.A. Milne’s books until much later. Nope, not in my teens. Much, much later. Say roundabout 26. Yep, a bit late, but at least I spared myself and my kids the yukky Disney incarnations which, I am proud to say, we shall never support.
And although Piglet seems so squealingly (yes, I made up that word) cute and Winnie-the-Pooh seems so adorably huggable, I always had a strange affinity with Eeyore. A totally misunderstood character, with perhaps a tinge of the disturbed. I always wondered why would a writer invent such a complex character in a story for children?
Last night we were enthralled by a segment from a long running South African nature show called 50/50. They featured a woman in the Eastern Cape who trains donkeys. The segment was entitled Donkey Defenders. Yep, Eeyore’s descendants are finally on the limelight.
First of, donkeys are not purple and plump in real life like overfed dinosaurs (yes, I am poking fun at you, Barney!). They are tan or dark brown with big eyes and matching long eyelashes.
The trainer, Annerie Wolmarans, goes around the poorer communities in the area befriending the owners. She feeds the donkeys on her visits because they get very little nourishment. They are made to carry heavy loads for long distances with harnesses that cut into their skins. After a few visits, Annerie offers to buy these animals off their owners.
She gives them the food and shelter that they need, spends time walking and even talking with them. Soon they grow to trust each other. She takes the donkey to see her own animals. Sheep have shown an instant liking to donkeys, she says. They like a donkey’s calm presence. His size makes them feel secure.
An animal behaviourist in the show reveals that donkeys are highly perceptive creatures. Self-preservation is one of their foremost traits. If a donkey senses its life is in danger, it will not at all obey even its owner wielding a whip. A donkey is also territorial and will fiercely defend itself and those it perceives to belong in its territory from invading animals, such as jackals or leopards.
After training a donkey for some time, Annarie finds a brave farmer willing to try this new type of protection for his livestock. Sheep farmers often resort to deadly traps for wildlife that can harm his flocks. And of all the surprises in the show, what made it more charming was the beaming faces of these big, burly farmers when the experiment proves to be a major success.
One of the farmers even declares “I spend time talking to her. I walk with her. I really love her.” His donkey, of course, and not Annerie. All the farmers had names for their donkeys, but I wasn’t listening closely enough to catch them.
Apparently a single donkey can protect as many as 500 sheep. And not a single predatory wildlife has reportedly been injured. That should cheer up Eeyore. Now we realize we have totally misunderstood him all these years. He does seem to have a calling.
The 50/50 website has Annerie’s email address, if you happen to be an interested sheep farmer. I don’t know if she will be able to convince her donkeys to trot into an airplane though.
The show was originally presented in Afrikaans and some English. But through the years they have begun using the other main languages of the country and the most welcome development is the English subtitles that now runs at the bottom of the screen. Cool, especially for the likes of hopeless me.