Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

Donkeys in Paradise

Jeff with Donkey
Jeff with Donkey

Assateague Island National Seashore, the 37 mile long pristine Atlantic barrier island straddling Virginia and Maryland, boasts world famous wild ponies. Fifteen hundred miles south, the Virgin Island archipelago, mostly thinly developed mountainous tropical islands has it’s not so famous, but well-loved feral donkeys.

Donkeys have been a key part of Virgin Island life for centuries. And, donkeys still have their day on the principle islands of St. Croix (US), St. Thomas (US), St. John (US), Tortola (UK), Virgin Gorda (UK) and Anegada (UK). About 300 of these “burros” roam the forests and yards of St. John, trimming roadside bushes, cutting grasses the old fashioned way and delighting tourists and residents alike. Anegada has also has a few hundred donkeys among its 2,000 wild hoofed animals.

As transportation, they had (and still have) advantages over internal combustion engines that go beyond the price of fuel. An older gentlemen from St. Thomas laughingly told me their donkey would bring his father home on Saturday nights when he’d had too much rum to find his own way. When he was a boy, every family had a donkey.   It was the only way, other than sailing, to get around the often steep, rugged island trails.

Sadly, donkeys are growing more scarce on some islands as jeeps and pick-up trucks replace their once dominant roles in personal and farm produce transport. Last August, a story in the British Virgin Islands Beacon, for instance, was headlined “Wanted: Donkeys.” The Beacon quoted several native “belongers” who bemoaned the dearth of donkeys. Tortola farmer Moviene Fahie explained how she tamed them: “I just talk with him, treat him good, feed him good, bathe him, shampoo him,” she said. “And he come tame.”

On nearby St. John, where two-thirds of the island is the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, the donkeys still thrive. But, they often need human friends. Ms. Dana Bartlett, owner of Carolina Corral in Coral Bay, is the islander most often called when a donkey is in trouble.

Last Saturday night (March 16) was a rough one for Coral Bay males (“Jacks”). “The dominant Jack in our neighborhood fell through plywood boards into a well not far from Skinny Legs’ Bar and drowned,” Dana recalls. “It was a bad way to go; but, what happened next was a fight between two males over who’d be the new top male. One Jack bit off a testicle of the other and he was bleeding badly.”

Dana was called by a local and she, in turn, called St. John veterinarian Laura Palminteri, owner of “Canines, Cats and Critters,” which has vet branch offices on St. Thomas and Tortola.

“Dana had the Jack lying along the road and quieted down by the time I arrived at about 8 pm,” Dr. Laura recalled.  “I looked him over and tended to him in the headlights of my car. He’d lost too much blood to give him general anesthetic, so I gave him shots of Novocain and completed the castration.”

The now gelded Jack is recovering nicely in Carolina Coral, which has eight horses and nine donkeys, including two recent rescues. Aside from the Jack, a couple weeks ago someone called Dana about a female (“Jenny”) seen lying along Centerline road near St. John’s Carolina region, named after a large plantation during Danish days.

Dana arrived in the early evening and found the Jenny who’d struggled up a nearby dead-end lane. “She’d lost a hoof — probably caught in a drainage grate — and was bleeding. I tranquilized her with a syringe and then wrapped the foot tightly and spent the night with her right there because she couldn’t be moved. Next morning, a friend and I moved her to Carolina Coral in a pick-up truck,” said Bartlett.

Dr. Laura, who stopped by to check-out the Jenny a day or two later, assures that “the hoof will grow back in three-to-six months.” She teams-up with Dana, as needed. “Generally, with feral donkeys, if Dana can touch them, I’ll do what needs to be done,” says the good doctor.

Last year, Dana called the doctor about a young donkey who’d been hit by a car, which resulted in a broken shin bone. “I called a friend, an equine specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, and decided to operate,” Dr. Laura recalled. “I put pins in the fracture secured by an external fixation device.”

The youngster took about three months to recover at Carolina Corral. Dr. Laura, who has lived on St. John for 17 years, says Dana Bartlett deserves a lot of thanks and support for her rescue work.

Among other community services, each year Dana drives Santa Claus on a donkey cart to an island Christmas bazaar and festival. Dana, who grew up on an Ohio dairy farm and learned even more about animal husbandry during ten years in the local 4-H club, came to St. John in 1993.

“The Carolina Corral began with two native donkeys out of the wild that I tamed,” Dana says. “Donkeys have been running free here since plantation days. They were still used regularly until the 1970s for hauling water, wood and charcoal and for taking local children to school.”

For tourists and others, Dana provides horseback trail rides and donkey cart tours of St. John’s mostly wild and unspoiled Coral Bay region.

While no one knows for sure how the equally lovable, but wild, Assateague Island ponies came to live on that East Coast barrier island, we know how the donkeys arrived in the Caribbean. They came during Columbus’ second voyage to the New World (1493 to 1496) when he discovered and named the Virgin Islands and founded what would become the city of Santo Domingo on Hispaniola. Four Jacks and two Jennies were brought ashore in Hispaniola so they could mate and produce larger, stronger mules for work.

Through recent academic genetic research, we also know our Caribbean species is a direct descendant of the world’s first domesticated donkey herds in ancient Nubia (now southern Egypt, northern Sudan). Since they evolved in a hot desert climate, donkeys are well adapted for Central and South America where today about 20 percent (8 million) of the world’s donkeys live.

While the wild ponies of Assateague Island became famous through the classic “Misty of Chincoteague” children’s novel, West Indian donkeys have a place in North American children’s hearts as well. “Tingalayo” may be the most widely known Caribbean children’s song in the U.S.

Here are a few of the lyrics:

My donkey walk.

My donkey talk.

My donkey eat with a knife and fork.



Come little donkey come.


Come little donkey come.

My donkey laugh.

My donkey sing.

My donkey wearin’ a diamond ring.

Repeat chorus.

Written by: Jeff McCord

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