Rescuing donkeys and mules is labor of love for Keene woman
Ann Firestone likes setting the record straight about donkeys, mules and their reputations for stubbornness.
"It's such a myth," she said. "These animals are very smart and if they think something is going to put them in danger, they won't do it."
And Firestone should know. She runs Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue (SYA), New England's only rescue and adoption network for donkeys and mules. If animals are neglected, abused or if their owners are no longer able to care for them, the network steps in and tries to find them new homes.
Officially launched back in 2008, SYA is a labor of love for and by people who know mules and donkeys and love them.
Last year, the tiny organization was able to rescue and find new homes for 39 animals.
"A donkey is like a big, mellow dog," said Firestone as she sat in her kitchen with two big, mellow German shepherds, a roving band of five chihuahuas and shih tzus and two chummy cockatiels watching everything from their cage in the corner.
Firestone's lifelong passion for animals began when she was a city kid growing up West Orange, N.J. She found a nest of abandoned baby squirrels, and with some help from her dad, she rescued them.
"I raised them, and that was it," she said, explaining from that point on there wasn't any doubt that caring for animals would be a huge part of her life.
Although she grew up in an urban area, neither Firestone, nor her husband, Jeff, another New Jersey native, were city folks at heart, and they moved north decades ago.
She launched a 35-year career as a vet technician, professional dog trainer and wildlife rehabilitation specialist for the state.
He opened Retro Music, a much-loved vintage guitar shop in Keene. Together they bought Broomtail Farm about 26 years ago and, with 15 acres, there was plenty of room to welcome all types of animals.
Firestone said she had always wanted a riding animal and in 1990 she adopted her first donkey.
"I met other people who had donkeys and I became aware of how many donkeys there were in New England," she said.
Firestone explained, as she has hundreds of times before, that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.
"They were bred for hybrid vigor," said Firestone. "Mules can do a lot more work on a lot less fuel than horses."
And, according to Firestone, mules are a little more reserved than donkeys.
"You have to earn their trust and get them to bond with you," she said. Donkeys, on the other hand, are smart, affectionate pets with a great sense of humor, a distinct hee-haw call and a built-in vigilance that often makes the good barnyard guardsmen, according to Firestone.
Over the years, as Firestone became more involved and enchanted with donkeys and mules, she also became aware of the number of animals who were being neglected by owners who either couldn't or wouldn't provide care for their animals.
She began casually working with other donkey and mule enthusiasts to arrange adoptions, especially for owners whose other option would be to put their animals up for auction where they would more than likely be bought for slaughter.
"At first, we charged a surrender fee but we found out that many people who were surrendering their animals were doing it because they couldn't afford to keep them," said Firestone. SYA now only charges an adoption fee.
Firestone puts in a lot of time making sure that every animal and its new owner are a good match. All of the animals are kept in quarantine for three weeks and examined by a vet. At the same time, Firestone welcomes them with lots of TLC.
Firestone runs SYA rescue with the help of a dedicated board of directors and a handy man who helps with the day-to-day work on the farm. The organization has fundraisers and the town of Acworth provided a grant that built a new stable for recently-arrived animals still in quarantine.
Still, many days it's Firestone, and only Firestone, who is caring for the little herd. She's has been keeping a close eye on a pregnant donkey who was emaciated when she arrived at SYA a few months ago.
"I know I can't save them all," she said, adding that the state has licensed the farm to keep 12 rescue animals at a time.
Although horses tend to steal the equine spotlight, Firestone believes more people would opt to own donkeys and mules if they were better understood. Part of SYA's mission is to educate people about the animals and the companionship they offer. That's the part of the story Firestone never gets tired of telling.
"Donkeys are so Zen," she said. "If I am having a bad day, I just go out and sit with them, and I feel better."