Suzanne Paddock grew up on a donkeyless farm, which her father was not about to remedy in spite of his daughter’s keen interest in the species.
However, a few years later she was engaged to marry a man who had not one but three donkeys.
Ron Paddock and his brother had bought the donkeys for breaking cattle.
“I used to ask him to take me to the donkeys,” she said. “He always said, ‘you’re never going to catch them,’ but one day I did. One came right up to me and I fell in love with him.”
With their wedding coming up in April 2000, Suzanne suggested that she and Ron get some donkeys at their place near Baldur, Man.
The answer was a quick yes.
It turns out Ron had always wanted to try his hand at raising Mammoth donkeys.
Mammoths, also known as American Mammoth, are the biggies of the donkey world. To be registered, a jack (male) must be at least 56 inches at the withers, while a jenny (female) must be at least 54 inches.
The Mammoth is a landrace of North American donkeys, descended from various breeds imported to the United States.
U.S. president George Washington is said to be one of several agricultural innovators who worked to develop the breed with the end goal of producing a strong work mule.
In those days, black was considered the only suitable colour for a Mammoth donkey because black jacks bred to Percheron mares produced dark coloured mules that were easy to match as teams. Today, Mammoths are produced in a variety of colours.
There were an estimated five million Mammoths worldwide in the 1920s, but today they are on the rare breeds list in North America with only 3,000 to 4,000 registered in the world.
They are tall, sturdy animals with large, well-made heads. The breed is known for its long ears, which often measure 33 inches in length. It was those exceptional ears that sparked the idea for the Paddock farm’s name: Big Ears Donkey Ranch.
Ron and Suzanne went on a donkey buying trip to Saskatchewan and Alberta before their wedding and came back with two unregistered jennies and a registered jack.
The next spring there were babies on their farm. They advertised them in the classifieds and friends advised them to print business cards.
“Why would we do that?” Suzanne wondered. “This is just for fun.”
However, it wasn’t long before the phone was ringing, donkeys were selling and people were asking for registered Mammoths. It was time to expand the herd.
The Paddocks bought two more registered jennies and two more the following year, but they had to go further afield to buy another registered jack. The pool of Mammoths in Canada is small, and animals are starting to be related to each other. In 2004, they found a frosted white spotted jack in Virginia, exactly what they were looking for.
“We like the Mammoth because it’s a bigger animal,” Suzanne said.
“We just feel you can do more with an animal that size. When we go to a fair, people are still astounded by the size of them. They have never seen donkeys that size. Lots call them mules.”
Donkeys need shelter for all seasons and do well on a plain diet of grass and lower quality hay.
Too much rich food will result in fat stored in a roll on their necks, which will flop to one side if they become too heavy. The condition is irreversible because muscle tone is lost forever.
The Paddocks feed some oats to weanlings and mothers with new babies.
Donkeys are more prone to impaction caused by dehydration than horses or other livestock, which means they should be provided fresh water during cold weather.
Foot care is also important. They have relatively small feet and can easily fall and injure themselves when walking or chasing a predator so regular trimming is necessary.
Donkeys are prone to the same diseases and parasites as horses and need regular vaccinations and de-worming.
Paddock said donkeys have gotten a bad rap for being stubborn.
“They’re more cautious than horses, but we find if you give them time they will overcome their fear,” she said. “They see us every day and never have they been hurt by us or chased around with a vehicle.”
Most of the foals at Big Ears Donkey Ranch are born in the barn, and Ron and Suzanne are usually there.
“We want to bond with the baby too,” she said. “It’s best to let the baby see us right from the start, hear our voices and so on. One baby, now just one week old, will leave her mom to come see us when we go into the corral.”
Twins are rare in equine species, and although slightly more common in donkeys than horses, they are still unusual.
As a result, Ron and Suzanne were astounded when two sets of twins were born on Big Ears Donkey Ranch in the spring of 2011.
Babies and mothers did well.
There was a male and a female in each pair and considerable discrepancy in their sizes.
The Paddocks wondered if sterility would be a problem, as it can be with twin foals, but were told not to worry about it because each baby in each set was attached to its own placenta.
The Paddocks sell and promote the breed from their website bigearsdonkeyranch.ca. They also host farm tours and are invited to fairs.
Prices range from $1,500 to $2,500.
Customers buy the donkeys for pets, companion animals for horses, small farm work, trail riding and breeding with mares to produce mules. About one-third are bought to be guard animals to protect cattle, sheep and goats.
The herd at Big Ears Donkey Ranch numbers about 20, and Paddock is confident that even her father has become a fan.
“When we imported Hollyfield Pilgrim from Leesburg, Va., U.S.A., my dad called the day before to see if he could come with us to the U.S. port of entry to meet the trucker and pick up the young donkey. I think he wanted to be the first to see Pilgrim.”