BROWNINGTON, Vt. — Hamilton the donkey was born during a nighttime storm on July 9 and within hours was more dead than alive. Just another barnyard calamity. Except much was riding on the little equine — belonging to a rare and imperiled French breed known as Baudet du Poitou.
Hamilton’s mother, Quiche, was a Poitou jenny — female donkey — at a Vermont equine rescue center. Dad was a dollop of decades-old frozen Poitou sperm from a French jack, or male donkey. Hamilton was conceived in lab-like conditions at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
“This was a very special donkey,” said Bari Fischer, a board member at Arnold’s Rescue Center, a 90-acre refuge for displaced donkeys and horses that is Hamilton’s home.
Hamilton is thought to be the first Poitou in the United States successfully bred with artificial insemination — opening new possibilities for infusing the ancient line with fresh blood.
The birth of the donkey was also part of a larger if little-noticed effort to save so-called heritage breeds of once-common livestock, poultry, and work animals — Cotton Patch geese to Choctaw hogs; Cubalaya chickens to true Texas Longhorns — now disappearing from farms or ranches and spiraling toward extinction.
The North Carolina-based Livestock Conservancy warns that scores of domestic breeds — and high on the list is the Poitou donkey — are in extreme danger of dwindling to nothing. In the United States, it’s often the old colonial breeds that sustained the early settlers.
“These are breeds out of place in the modern world, replaced by meatier hogs on factory farms or chickens that lay more eggs,’’ said Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager for the conservancy, speaking by phone from Oklahoma where she was collecting cell samples from Choctaw hogs, the ill-tempered, wattle-necked, fused-toe breed popular on early 18th-century homesteads.
“We’re trying to conserve a unique genetic heritage that could be lost forever,” Beranger added. “Our goal is to save the animals. If not, at least we can preserve the DNA — who knows what secrets it holds?”
Donkeys still serve as beasts of burden in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world. But Baudet du Poitous were highly prized in Europe — and later in 19th-century America — not for the strength of their backs but the fruit of their loins.
“Baudet translates to ‘sire of mules,’” Fischer said.
Bred with horses — special large farm mares — Poitous produced some of the finest mules right into the early 20th century. And mules, which are sterile and cannot reproduce, served for centuries as the Western world’s preeminent draft animal — pulling plows and rattling farm machines, yes, but also transporting armies to war and wagon trains across the endless prairies.
Then came tractors. Then came trucks. Suddenly mules were obsolete — along with the donkeys that sired them. Even noble Poitous were slaughtered by the thousands for dog food or sold off as pets or amusement park rides. Or, in more merciful times, landed at “rescue centers” such as the one in northeastern Vermont.
Rare-donkey aficionados were delighted by the arrival of Hamilton at the modest equine center in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, near the Canadian border. Arnold’s, a nonprofit, cares for 15 displaced donkeys — including 10 Poitous — and four horses.
The big applause went to researchers at the Illinois veterinary teaching hospital that made Hamilton happen.
“This is very cool and a big first. There are over 200 breeds of donkeys and many are endangered,” said Amy McLean, a professor of animal science at the University California, Davis, and a top donkey expert. The push to produce a new Poitou donkey from old frozen semen “brings hope to preserving donkey breeds on a global level.”
But as the sun rose on Hamilton’s first day, the donkey’s failure to thrive threatened to dash hopes.
The birth went badly, despite electronic medical monitors on the jenny. Death seemed likely. And that would have marked a demoralizing setback to the work of veterinarians, researchers, and animal rescue folk trying to revive Poitou donkeys, a line stretching back for centuries. French royals, including King Louis XV, doted on the exuberantly friendly, shaggy-haired critters, according to historical accounts.
“The donkeys are known to have existed in France in the Middle Ages,” said Giorgia Podico, a veterinarian, Ph.D candidate, and part of the Illinois Poitou reproduction team. “It is one of the oldest donkey breeds. But was nearly extinct in the 1970s.”
Indeed, the Livestock Conservancy described Poitou donkeys as “more rare than black rhinos and giant pandas.”
Even today, after intensified conventional breeding efforts, experts say fewer than 100 Poitou donkeys survive in the United States and barely 600 worldwide. France, with its fussier definition of purebred, puts the number of surviving Poitous at about 300.
“These are big-boned, powerful, beautiful animals with lovely dispositions,’’ Beranger said. “They were highly valuable. Until they weren’t.”
The ambitious insemination of the Vermont jenny was led by the University of Illinois’ Igor Canisso, a world-renowned theriogenologist, or specialist in animal reproduction. Unlike cows, donkeys are notoriously difficult to artificially inseminate. Tougher still when you’re using frozen sperm, as the thawing process can cause cell damage, making it problematic for the most skilled animal reproduction specialists.
“I am addicted to challenging clinical cases,” Canisso said in a statement from the veterinary college.
Most surviving Poitous are in France, which boasts a Poitou sanctuary and scientifically sophisticated breeding center, and where research veterinarians see reviving the donkey as a matter of national honor. But they’ve scored zero success using the frozen sperm technique that produced Hamilton, say donkey experts.
In the United States, the donkeys — with their distinctive “dreadlock” manes — are considered rare and offbeat enough that a trio of Poitous is on display at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. The outgoing, attention-loving critters are a hit in a section that focuses on homely farm breeds — as opposed to exotic wild species, say zoo officials.
“Understanding and getting to know domesticated animals can be a great foundation for understanding animals [in general], and evolutionary processes and relationships between people and animals,” said John Linehan, chief executive of Zoo New England.
The Illinois insemination attempt was a long shot, so there was joy when Quiche proved pregnant. She was transported — as gently as a horse carrier will allow — back to Vermont to await her term.
“Even adding just one more Poitou was going to be an important step toward protecting the population from declining anymore,” said Fischer at the Brownington center.
But Hamilton was born early, unexpectedly, and roughly on the proverbial dark and stormy night. Through mishap, the quivering bundle of flesh, bone, and spirit slipped from its mother’s womb into a filthy puddle. The mother tried to coax him to rise and accept milk. She failed. The baby lay stricken in the muck.
By the next morning, the donkey was in “total sepsis,” in Fischer’s words — infected through and through. Hamilton was rushed 160 miles to the Myhre Equine Clinic and Hospital in Rochester, N.H.
Then came a dozen days of touch and go in the clinic’s intensive care unit. Under treatment overseen by veterinarian Ron Vin, Hamilton pulled through.
“The miracle donkey,” Fischer called him.
Well, the miracle was the result of high-powered veterinary skill and medicines. But perhaps prayer played a part — the donkey’s plight drew local attention and concern. Even dour Amish farmers, not given to emotion or interacting with non-Amish, would swing by the rescue center and inquire after Hamilton.
Hamilton, not yet 3 months old, is now back on the Vermont farm and seemingly in high health — pouncing on his beloved blue “therapy” ball and gleefully chasing ducks. His mother ignores him, apparently she believes her true baby died that awful July night. But a 38-year-old donkey named Henry has become a genial father figure, giving Hamilton the occasional sharp nudge to mind his manners.
“The donkeys are settling in to be what they should be — happy, secure, cared for as best can be done,” Fischer said.
Colin Nickerson can be reached at email@example.com