by Bill Key - Cairo, Egypt
Numerous articles have appeared in Mules and More about the heritage and bloodlines of the American Mammoth Jack Donkey. From these well written articles some of the premiere donkeys of this species have been identified, i.e., Jenn-Jack, Amarillo Slim, Rooster, to mention a few. The ancestral bloodline of these donkeys goes back to an imported donkey from the Poitou region of France named Kaki. My thanks to Earl Sunderman in the November 2007 issue and the writer of the Amarillo Slim over story in the February 2009 issue for identifying this lineage. Also thanks to Donna Taylor who photographed one at the donkey sanctuary in Sidmouth.
We had just finished struggling through the holy month of Ramadan here in Cairo. It can be quite tiring and burdensome to live amongst 20 million people who stay up all night praying and then fasting the next day (no water nor food from daylight to dusk which is particularly difficult in August) while they walk (and work) in their sleep. Having endured this we decided to go to the French countryside and see if we could locate some of these Poitous. That is what I wanted to do. My wife, however, wanted to shop and sightsee in Paris. We resolved this by me giving her a week head start. She spent her time in Paris and when we I got there we went directly to the French countryside, via the T.G.V., their high speed train, speeding through the French countryside at 120 miles per hour. It was a superb way to travel.
When staying in the French countryside, you don’t have Best Western or Motel Six, you have small cottages that are attached to people’s homes. They are really quite picturesque, enchanting, and inexpensive. They are called gites, at least that’s what my wife tells me. Ours was located in the town of Vix. This is in the region Poitou-Charentes where the big donkeys are supposed to be. Indeed this was so, as it turned out the owner of our gite had a brother who is a farmer. He had four of these Poitous on his farm. However, more importantly, he told us of a farm in the area devoted strictly to promulgating this donkey species, named by the French “Baudet du Poitou,” but what we call “Poitou.” Yes, a big shaggy donkey. The French use the term Poitou to denote a person from the region and not the donkey. This “donkery” was located outside of the village Dampierre-sur-Boutonne about 40 miles from our gite.
The farm’s name is “L’asinerie du Baudet de Poitou.” The “asinerie” means donkey farm in French. The farm is owned and operated by the General Council of Charente Maritime. It’s not a real person, it’s like the government of the province. The president of this council is Dominique Bussereau (who is also the secretary of State for Transportation in the Sarkozy cabinent). The asinerie operates with the general council’s money, and with the local politicians’ wishes.
So our gite owner called the farm and arranged for an English speaking guide, the lovely and beautiful Maud Leray. She had come to the farm once as a little girl on a tour and had made it her life’s goal to work there, which she had succeeded in.
These donkeys don’t proliferate the French countryside as they did for centuries. This is due to the mechanization of the farming production that ocurred after World War II. The need for mules diminished, for that is what these donkeys combined with the horse breed, “Trait Mulasiers,”, were called “mule makers.” They were never put to work, they just made mules. But there was no need for a mule when you have tractors and diesel fuel. By 1977, they had a reached a critical mass of only 44 pure Baudet du Poitous.
Now it so happened that 24 of these donkeys were on the 21 hectacre farm belonging to a Suzane Auger, who in 1979 was president of the Poitou Donkey Breeders Association. She had no heirs so she sold the farm and the donkeys to General Council of Charente Maritime. From this base the mission to increase the number of pure Baudet du Poitou began.
According to Maud, the plan that was initiated and underway is this. In 1981, 12 female donkeys from Portugal were imported to breed with the pure Poitou donkeys on the farm. This would introduce new blood into the band and prevent inbreeding. I write this with some trepidation as I know many Mules and More readers are breeders and know all the proper technical terms and reasons, apologies to them. These offspring would breed successively with the pure Baudet du Poitou. This would be repeated for seven generations until they had a purity of 99.22% Baudet du Poitou. Currently they are on generation number five. They had a set back two years ago when they had only male donkey offspring. They use only female offspring for this successive breeding, and I didn’t really understand why. They plan on having bred their first 99.22% pure Baudet du Poitou in eight to ten years.
The first picture shows one of the four original “pure” Baudet du Poitouis, named Lincoln. From the original 22, there are two females and two males. They all have big feet, big heads, white noses, white surrounding their eyes and some have big hair. There were no crosses or stripes on their backs. Maud said they each weighed about 450 kilos. If they had measured them, it was long ago and she couldn’t remember their heights. I would guess they are all about 14 hands high.
They are kept behind electrified wire as they get quite rambunctious when a female is in heat. Not all of them had the long shaggy hair. Maud said this was hereditary, that I didn’t know.
Also, there is Verviene, she is five months old, so sweet and just off her mother’s milk. She is the only one of all the Baudet du Poitous we saw that has black around her eyes and nose. She is part of this year’s (fifth generation) offspring. She was darling.
This horse in the picture is a Trait Mulassier, French for mule maker. This is the stallion. He is breed with the Trout Mulasier mare also on the farm. He was about tall and looked heavy. The French call this color “Isabelle,” and it looked like what we would call grulla.
The mule in the picture is the product of the Baudet du Poitou and the Trait Mulasier and bred right there on the farm. They are a beautiful mahagony bay color. They had three on the premises. They were hoping to have a fourth for their four hitch. This mule must have know I wanted his photograph and would not have it. I waited 30 minutes for him to give me another view but he refused to comply, so we thus have mostly a rear view of this lovely bay mule.
The Baudet du Poitou jacks on the farm are also used to cover Trait Mulassier mares and female donkeys of outside breeders. They average about 150 pairings a year. Approximately 10,000 people a year visit this farm. It is a delightful place.
Maud told us without knowing anything about Bishop Mule Days or the Clinton Chuck Wagon Races or any of the other of our fabulous American festivals that they wanted to have a festival once every couple of years honoring the Baudet du Poitou and the Trait Mulasseir. Of course I told her this was a splendid idea and there were many such festivals in America and they ought to come see them. So maybe next year in Bishop we will hear some French accents, or better yet, I can see it now...Meredith Hodges’ next book, “Jasper Goes to France.” This story really ends here, but buckling under to intense lobbying from my wife, I will include a picture of the author on a big donkey (to the left). This donkey was available for rides at a small grassy park on the Island San Martine de Re.’ Of course only children rode but the donkeys were big enough for grownups. So I rode while all the French grownups laughed. The owner of the big donkey was a Baudet du Poitou breeder and he was absolutely delighted that an American came and rode his donkey. He told us the donkey had Baudet du Poitou bloodlines. It was indeed big but it did not have the characteristic big feet, as you can see. The author has the only big feet in the picture. They call this color, ferrite, for its iron-like characteristic. The donkeys legs are covered for protection from insects. The Poitou-Charente region has numerous marshes with lots of insects.