Rare Donkey Passes Test, Can Stay Here

Times Staff Writers

Sonette, the rare French donkey that was ordered to leave the country or face death, has had her sentence revoked.

After receiving word Thursday that the 7-month-old curly-haired Poitou donkey had, after repeated tests, received a clean bill of health from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, San Diego Zoo officials feted Sonette with carrots and champagne.

Sonette gobbled the carrots but turned up her nose at the champagne. Werner Heuschele, the zoo’s head of microbiology and virology research, noted that Sonette is French and that the champagne was American.

Sonette, who had remained in quarantine for more than a month, was officially released after passing USDA-required tests for admission to the country.


As a result, she will be allowed to remain in the United States and fulfill her mission--helping to propagate her dying species.

One of only about 60 Poitou donkeys in existence, Sonette was imported from France by Drs. Jack and Sharon Vanderlip, staff veterinarians at UC San Diego, to participate in a breeding program. After arriving in the United States, Sonette was unable to pass initial USDA tests and, under the law, was ordered out of the country or put to death.

About two weeks ago, the animal was moved from the USDA’s quarantine center in Los Angeles to the San Diego Zoo to allow time for retesting in an effort to save her.

After repeatedly failing to test negative for piroplasmosis, dourine and glanders--equine diseases that the USDA protects U.S. livestock against--on the seventh attempt Sonette tested negative, according to San Diego Zoo officials.


Although USDA officials admitted that the equine tests given Sonette were developed for horses and tend to give false results when administered to donkeys, they insisted that USDA regulations offered no alternative. They maintained that her chances of passing the tests would improve the more times she took them.

The Vanderlips, like other veterinary experts, have maintained, however, that the testing methods used by the agency are unfair to donkeys, mules, zebras and other exotic equines that react idiosyncratically to the tests.

“We’re really glad that she’s out. She never had any diseases to begin with,” Sharon Vanderlip said. “But we still want the USDA to look into alternate testing methods for donkeys, so that no more perfectly healthy animals are put in jeopardy of being killed due to inadequate testing methods.”

She noted that the controversy may have placed more obstacles in the way of the program to propagate the species. It now may be more difficult to import Sonette’s mate.


She said that the 84-year-old French breeder from whom they purchased Sonette, and who agreed to sell them a male Poitou, has had misgivings about the deal.

“After learning about this predicament, she doesn’t want to send another donkey to the United States, and I can’t say that I blame her,” Vanderlip said.

With this in mind, the Vanderlips have established a nonprofit foundation named after Sonette to develop alternate testing methods for exotic equines and to preserve the Poitou breed, she said.

“This has been such a nightmare,” she added. “We don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”