On a plot of 20 acres, rural route Numa, is where the improbable story of the Castors begin.
Lush green rolling fields. Ponds with stiff brown cattails. Gravel country roads framed by clumps of orange ditch lilies.
Summer is laying down. God’s country.
Here is where you will find Ruth and Gene Castor.
Most couples approaching their seventies are allowing for more time with their great-grandchildren in between cruises and hip replacements. Silver hair in the golden years, the boomers are readying for retirement.
As for the Castors, they have decided to refire, not retire.
An early morning June sun awoke in a good mood, taking her place in the baby-blue sky. Raccoons and other nocturnal wildlife returned to the relative darken safety of a nearby wood line. Songbirds cleared their pristine vocal cords, a grumpy toad could be heard thumping from a pond up on the hill. Chiming into nature’s morning symphony were the two-tone brays coming from a drove of donkeys.
Donkeys? A drove of donkeys?
Ruth and Gene for the past 16 years have opened their hearts and 17 of their 20 green acres for rescue donkeys. “It’s a God thing,” reasons Ruth.
Walking in front of and behind her donkeys they hardly noticed Ruth. The gang with big ears had accepted Ruth and husband Gene as a family a long time ago.
It’s a place where everyone knows your name: Jingles, Buddy, Bear, Shorty, Jet, Sugar, Chase.
“Our donkeys won’t kick you when you are behind them,” Ruth said. “You can walk around behind grooming them or whatever and they will not kick. It’s all about their memory of how you have treated them, cared for them, how happy and safe they feel with you. They know we love them.”
Ruth, using a curry horse comb, would randomly pick out a donkey to scritch on. Running her free hand through the withers of a roan donkey before moving on to the next patient animal. Brushing out winter’s last vestige of thick textured fur, the donkey’s coat became short and sleek.
“I brush them spring and early summer to get rid of the winter coat and they come out so slick and pretty. We just like to have them looking and feeling good,” as Ruth steps back to admire Sugar’s coat. “Now Bear over here, he won’t shed much. He’s just a curly guy.”
Pausing, Ruth reminisced about how a seemingly normal couple enjoying life and those grandkids got corralled into rescuing donkeys.
“This all began 16 years ago,” she recalled. “Gene and I attended an Amish auction. There were eight donkeys but two of them didn’t look so good. I don’t know but I was smitten with the two donkeys who looked like they needed to be rescued. That day we brought home our first two rescue donkeys.”
Nearby, husband Gene bent over picking up a used ice cream pail now containing donkey mint treats. Looking at his wife with a mix of adoration and wonder, Gene admitted: “we sure had no ideas about rescuing any donkeys before Ruth saw them at that sale.”
As if to punctuate who was the chief donkey whisperer Gene added, “I really didn’t know what to think of what she was doing,” he said while beginning to laugh. “Hey, I just went with the flow.”
Pushing his green ball hat further up on his forehead Gene gave the story back to Ruth with a nod.
“That day we brought home the two donkeys who looked like they needed help,” Ruth said. “They were a mother and son who we named Buddy and Jet. Those were our first rescues.”
Bureau of Land Management
Ruth explained the donkey’s lineage from the feral plains of Southern Nevada to an auction in Iowa.
“[Those selling at the auction] had picked up Buddy and Jet from the BLM, Bureau of Land Management,” she said. “The donkeys run wild just like the horses in Southern Nevada and Northern California. I don’t know if they were sold or given to the Amish.”
The Bureau of Land Management oversees 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 western states.
The Castors are well-informed on the plight of wild donkeys.
“I talk to other rescues and I do a lot of research,” Ruth said. “I like to talk to a particular rescue in California, I even bought his book. It’s sad because when I talk to other rescues, no matter where they are located, they are inundated with donkeys.”
The BLM backs up Ruth’s experience with numbers. As of March of this year, there are approximately 88,090 wild horses and donkeys roaming on public land in 10 western states. Since the Bureau began keeping records in 1971 there has never been so many wild donkeys.
Currently, there are three times more wild donkeys than what the public lands can support.
“Although we have rescued donkeys from auctions and from people who have asked us to, we are not bringing in new donkeys anymore,” Ruth said. “What we have today is more of a sanctuary for the 15 we have.”
Two Became Eight
Like a proud mother giving special thought to the name of a new child, Ruth explained how Jet got his name.
“... when we first got her home, Gene was carrying a bucket of feed. Well, Jet saw that bucket of food and zoom, her leg kicked the bucket right out of his hand,” Ruth recalled. “I mean lightening quick!”
Gene, listening to his wife, added, “Yeah, a good month went by with us rehabilitating these original two. But there had actually been eight donkeys for sale at that auction. So after we had got a handle on Buddy and Jet we returned and bought the other six.”
Just like that two became eight, and the die was cast.
Gene talked about a common occurrence that helps to explain the rescue’s evolving donkey count.
“An older fellow came by here one day and asked if we could take a couple more,” Gene said. “We drove over to his place to see them. We ended up bringing back with us two more. One of the donkey’s hooves were in such bad shape it took our farrier a long time to correct them.”
Those two donkeys were rescued over a decade ago. Today, they reign as the properties ‘first couple’, Sugar and Chase.
“Sometimes they aren’t with the herd but they will always be with one another,” Gene tells of the first couple’s special friendship. “If they get separated Chase will look for Sugar. We got Chase and Sugar at the same time so they have been together for ten years.”
As the herd grew so did the Castor’s feed bill. Gene says they fill bunks with grain twice a week in the summer and three times a week in the winter. They also get grass hay, not alfalfa hay, he said, in the winter.
The Castors estimate the cost to keep the rescue going is on average between $300 and $500 a month. Every penny comes from their own pockets.
“We do it for humanitarian reasons,” Ruth said. “These many donkeys cost a lot of money.”
“Food doesn’t cost us as much in the spring and summer because the grass grows,” she said. “They also like timothy-grass. However, in the winter the hay is expensive.”
During the cold winter months, Gene said the donkeys can tear through 320 to 400 regular size bales of hay each season.
Eight Wasn’t Enough
The history of the donkey rescue count began with the original two, Buddy and Jet. Soon after, the Castor’s welcomed in six more homeless donkeys, bringing the count to 10. Ten donkeys mushroomed into the rescue’s high of 25 last year. That 25 was weened down to today’s herd of 15.
After 16 years of managing a much-needed sanctuary for downtrodden donkeys, Ruth is resolute that the current 15 is enough.
“It’s hard,” began Ruth, “but we just cannot accept any more. It’s always been just the two of us. We still work every day for our donkeys, but 15 is enough.”
Ruth and Gend brag on her local farrier, Tom Carson. Each donkey needs to have a farrier check their hooves twice a year, more if there are issues.
Outside of the donkey ranch, Ruth has a full-time, Monday through Friday job for Iowa Staffing.
“By the time I get home from working all day and get us something to eat I don’t have a lot of time to spend with the donkeys during the week,” Ruth said. “So Gene tends to them through the week and I kind of takeover on the weekends.”
Modern-Day Dr. Dolittles
As if the bell signaling recess had sounded, the entire drove of donkeys bellied up to the wire retaining fence. Like school children behaving politely on a Halloween night. Shorty, Jet, Jingles, and the rest of the donkeys patiently waited for Ruth to answer the imaginary door.
Like modern-day Dr. Dolittles, Ruth and Gene now mingled in with 15 of their closet friends. The donkeys smelled the air with anticipation.
“People totally misunderstand what donkeys are all about,” praised Ruth. “See how friendly they are? They truly love our attention.”
It was treat-time, and the beggars knew it.
“You know, people think we’re nuts,” Ruth said with a smile. “They’ll say, ‘Why do you still have those stupid donkeys?’”
In the end, it’s Ruth and Gene Castor and their 17 acres of donkey heaven.
“They bring us peace,” Says Ruth. “I hope we do the same for them.”
To make a donation, including hay, for the donkeys, call Ruth at 641-436-6706 or email her at Ruth.Castor@Iowa-Staffing.com.