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On the Fate of Jesuit Donkeys

When I arrived back in Los Gatos from Georgetown, I mentioned in a column (The Catholic Thing [1], April 15, 2013) that on this property we had five “jackasses.” They were denizens of the land. I recounted that they were in a field above the house and had followed me down a trail one afternoon to their feeding pen. This scene occasioned some learned comments from the brethren about the nature of Schall’s “following.”

Meantime, two of the jennies (female donkeys) had foals, cute little critters in fact. The Jack, not a practicing monogamist, and the two jennies, unlike mules, can be quite adept at reproducing their kind. The donkeys became a center of local curiosity. We have trails through the property with “No Trespassing” signs on the fences.

These donkeys have no obvious purpose. I once suggested to the superior that we open a business of giving two-dollar donkey rides as a means of support. He thought it a splendid idea and shrewdly appointed Schall to run the operation. No more was ever heard of this otherwise brilliant proposal.

Thanks to its Italian Jesuit founding in the 19th century, this institution had a winery (“Novitiate of Los Gatos”) with acres of grape fields. Donkeys were used to plough the steep hillsides in back of the house. Today, the donkeys are more in the order of pets. And that is the origin of their sad fate, which I will now recount. It is a classic example of what happens in an overly legalized society.

One afternoon, I was walking down one of the hills. A rather upset lady stopped me. She complained that the donkeys were emaciated. We Jesuits were starving them. Naturally, I claimed innocence of any deliberate tendency to “donkey-cide.” Edgar, the local keeper of the animals, assured me that the donkeys were well fed and watered. They grazed contentedly on the grassy slopes around the house.

Many people would come up. They gave the donkeys human food that, while well intentioned, was not really good for them. Rumor had it that this lady took the issue to the Humane Society. Superiors imagined headlines in the local paper: “Jesuits Starve Donkeys.”

But this was only the beginning. Particularly after the baby donkeys were born, mothers would bring little kids up to see them. The more agile ones would climb over the fence to pet and hug the donkeys. It was a charming scene. The kids loved it.

Donkeys, however, are animals. This is a first principle, as Aristotle said. They can kick, bite, and slobber. The specter of enterprising lawyers came up. Even with “No Trespassing” signs, if some little kid were kicked by a donkey, the headlines would read: “Jesuit Donkey Kicks Local Youth.” You see the problem?

To anticipate the worst-case scenario is a function of the human mind. So, following Ignatius of Loyola‘s rules for decision-making, it was determined to find another home for our good donkeys. Even with every precaution taken, there is little possibility today of escaping oodles of law suits in such a situation.

So the prudence of this world determined that the donkey-keepers look around for other farms that would purchase or take the animals. Places were soon enough found. Donkey friendships and families were broken up. The threats of lawyers rule the land.

Now our property no longer hears the familiar “Hee-Haw” of the Jack to wake up a slumbering Jesuit or provide a good conversation at lunch. Our place is now more silent. We once had some horses and chickens on this land, but they, like the donkeys, are no more.

From my youth, I recalled my uncles’ farms when they still had smaller family farms in Iowa. I remember vividly the farm sounds – cows, horses, mules, hens, roosters, cats, dogs, bulls, hogs, sheep, turkeys, tractors, windmills, not to mention the birds and field animals. I remember yarns about hearing corn grow on hot summer nights. Today, we hear the noise of the highway to Santa Cruz below, airplanes above, cell phones everywhere. What was the name of that song? “The Sounds of Silence”?

Donkeys appear in Scripture. King David rode a donkey. Jesus Himself rode one into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Mary is said to have ridden a donkey into Egypt. I read somewhere of a Muslim rule that Christians could not ride horses but had to use donkeys.

Donkeys are famous “beasts of burden” in mountains and tough trails. They are sure-footed. Presumably they share with mules the quality of stubbornness, for which quality something is to be said.

Is Cecil the African Lion’s story sadder than the legal shadow over our donkey family? I would not venture to estimate. Animal “rights” and “liabilities” these days have strange consequences, even in the now more silent hills above Los Gatos.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.