Big Red wasn't really interested in a career on the donkey basketball circuit, but the ornery gelding has proven an adept guard in another field--protecting sheep from coyotes.
"In all the flocks we've had donkeys in, we haven't lost one," said shepherd Paul Allen. "I don't think it will eradicate the problem, but it is helping."
Allen, his father, Charles, and brother Carl keep a flock of about 470 sheep in the rugged hills of northeast Pennsylvania. They had about 600 sheep before coyotes began attacking two months ago.
Ten were killed in one night in early June, and the family estimates its total losses at $10,000.
At first, the Allens turned to all-night patrols, eschewing dogs for fear that a rifle-toting watchman would mistake them for coyotes.
"We'd fall asleep awhile standing up," Allen's father said. "A couple of times, the coyotes would sneak up and take one from the edge."
Next, they brought in a llama--a natural coyote enemy. But it leaped a fence and stayed away until another llama was brought in to attract it back.
Then the Allens turned to donkeys. The attacks stopped.
"They're kind of companion animals," Allen said. "When a perpetrator comes around they raise a fuss. They'll take a heads-up stance and get between the perpetrator and the flock. Intimidation is a pretty big part of it."
Poncho, a male donkey or jack, and Zelda, a wild jenny brought from the West to thin its donkey population, are on loan from neighbors.
Big Red, a gelding, or castrated male, was bought from the donkey basketball circuit, where he was getting too ill-tempered to join teams of donkeys hired as mounts for charity games, Allen said.
"They say he didn't like basketball anymore," Allen said. "I don't know how they could tell."
Allen said he doesn't know whether the attacks stopped because of the donkeys or by coincidence, but his father said he is satisfied enough to consider obtaining more.