His soft warm muzzle nuzzled my cheek as I rocked sweet six day old Charlie in my arms. Donna Stacey and Mike Murphy drove for over two hours to bring this fragile baby to us. As Donna retold the story of how they came to have little Charlie, I looked down at the tiny bundle of bone and fur resting in my lap. At that moment, I knew that I was looking at a miracle. Donna said with sadness in her voice, that they were taking their daily morning walk, when they noticed a dark spot in the pasture across the street from their property. Then, they saw “it” move and they soon realized that “it” was a living breathing baby donkey. They watched with great concern, the mother and the rest of the donkeys stand at a distance from the new baby. With great trepidation they continued their walk until they were caught in a sudden downpour of rain.
Donna and Mike were deeply troubled by what they had seen, but it wasn't their property, the donkeys were not theirs and they were concerned about interfering in their neighbor’s business. But, the image of the tiny, helpless foal with big sad eyes haunted them. They prayed and hoped the baby was now up and with mom. The rain stopped and within the hour they found themselves standing where they had first seen Charlie and realized their worst fears to be true. To their horror, they found the baby was abandoned and left lying in what was now a mud puddle. They knew nothing of donkeys, and certainly were not set up to care for one. So, what they did next was Charlie’s first miracle.
Donna and Mike knew they could not let this baby die alone in a mud puddle. When they went back and found him lying in the same spot alone and despondent, it was clear to them that they had no choice but to act. Looking into his innocent, soft eyes they committed themselves to helping a baby donkey in need. Luckily for little Charlie, the owners son told them he didn’t care, and they could take the baby. For six days they tried to save him. They got the help of neighbors and learned how to feed him.
Sadly, they knew he wasn’t thriving so they sought help to save him. They had no idea where to turn to get the help they needed and finally contacted Longhopes Rescue in Bennett CO. They, in turn, recommended that they get in touch with TMR Rescue, Inc. in Plantersville, TX knowing we have a reputation for giving extraordinary care to our equine residents. So, finally, six days after tiny Charlie was found abandoned and left to die alone in a mud puddle, I got the phone call from Donna and knew from the sound in her voice that I could not say “no”. Little did I know my life was about to be changed forever.
Soon, a soft, warm bundle was resting his sweet head against my chest. As I rocked him in our easy chair, I fell head over heels in love with him. The bonding was instantaneous. I couldn’t take my eyes off this beautiful baby. He was the essence of innocence and helplessness. I looked up and Johnny had the same look on his face. We both knew we were going to do whatever was necessary to help this baby to survive. He was our baby now. We promised Donna and Mike we would take care of Charlie. Donna, fed him a bottle and hugged him. Without question, the bond they felt for Charlie was very deep and very real. I know how great the sacrifice was that Mike and Donna made that day. Charlie had already worked the miracle of love on them. With hearts bursting they left Charlie with us, entrusting us with their baby. They knew it was his only chance for survival. He was weak, and although unspoken, we all knew he didn’t have much time.
We did not want to alarm them while they were here, but as soon as Mike and Donna left we loaded Charlie in the car and took him to Brazos Valley Equine Hospital to get the critical care we knew he needed. Charlie clung to life, and at six days old little Charlie underwent a full plasma transfusion. Incredibly, after 6,000 years of domestication, little is known about donkeys. Veterinary doctors are forced to go by horse data in treating them which is always a gamble. But, I believe in the doctors at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital. I knew they would take every precaution with Charlie that they could to insure his survival. He had the heart of a tiger and would not give up. He was in the ICU unit of BVEH for a month before Doctor Benjamin Buchanan felt confident that Charlie was strong enough to go home. Charlie lived!
What a homecoming it was! We were all ecstatic mother hens over Charlie. We set him up with a snuggly enclosure in our break room. What joy! What happiness! Charlie had the run of the place whenever anyone was in the break room. He had a huge yard to play in and people surrounding him who adored him. In short, we spoiled him. He was fun loving and mischievous providing us with smiles and laughs every day as he learned new tricks and found new things to get into. I never saw Uncle Johnny smile so broadly as he did watching Charlie recline on the porch swing with me, or ride on the golf cart as we handed out treats to our four legged family. Being with Charlie was like riding on the wings of an angel. He was a joyous being. Very soon, Charlie’s early problems with his legs returned and he had to have his leg braces put back on. But, as usual, Charlie took it in stride.
No one was his enemy, and everyone was a potential playmate. He was growing and becoming more beautiful every day. No one who came to our ranch for any reason left without asking to see Charlie. Even the most hardened of cowboys were mush in his presence. Doctor Buchanan’s team at Brazos did field visits to “check” on Charlie’s legs. They all loved him. It was clear that Charlie was special. From the beginning I shared Charlie’s story, and found that Charlie’s gift of projecting love was pouring beyond the employees of TMR Rescue, Inc. and the veterinary staff at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital. His love was entering the hearts of people around the world. What was it about Charlie? How was he able to climb so deeply into people’s hearts and minds?
On a trip to Crystal Beach, Johnny and I put Charlie in the back seat of his car and headed out. On our way, we went through a carwash which scared him. But, he trusted us completely and he was easily settled when he heard our voices of reassurance. We were witness to Charlie’s incredible powers of healing so we started making plans early on to prepare him to be a therapy animal. Being with Charlie just made us all feel good.
At the beach, sporting his new swimming vest, goggles and surfer boots, Charlie quickly took to the waves. People were drawn to him and thronged around him. They just wanted to touch him. For Johnny and me, it was a perfect day. Our dear friends Bonnie and Gabe invited us that day, and we couldn’t thank them enough. I can honestly say it was the best day ever. We were so proud of our little Charlie that we could not contain our joy. The portraits taken by our friends, Gabe and Bonnie, who are both professional photographers, captured the joy Charlie brought to all who came in contact with him. What a gift he was. Clearly, Charlie was destined to be a very popular and successful therapy donkey. We were overjoyed and made plans for his future.
When Chey Rondeaux came to visit us for two weeks we learned just how playful Charlie could be. He loved playing catch me if you can with young Chey. She and Charlie had a grand time playing chase in the yard. He really enjoyed her visit. Johnny and I were happy to have Chey along on some of our training visits, too. She joined us on visits to Walmart, Petsmart, and Five Guys Restaurant. Chey was always one of Charlie’s number one child fans. She adored him and it showed. And, Charlie returned Chey’s love too. He enjoyed children. Truly, it was a beautiful thing to watch Charlie and Chey play in the yard.
Charlie continued to take every new experience in stride. He was amazing. We just knew we had found Charlie’s calling. Because we believed Charlie was no longer vulnerable to every floating germ he encountered we felt comfortable with taking Charlie on outings. We were rejoicing in the healthy glow that Charlie appeared to be developing. What fun it was to walk into Petsmart and see how people responded to seeing a baby donkey shopping. Indeed, pure joy is the only way to describe Charlie’s interaction with people coming out of Walmart. So, many stopped and thanked us for their smile of the day that we felt like rock stars. He also had that effect on hundreds of people he never had the pleasure of meeting in person.
Camera phones were pulled out and used to photograph Charlie everywhere we went. It was as if they needed to prove to themselves that yes, they really did see an adorable baby donkey walking around in baby slippers. It was easy to see the joy they felt as Charlie worked his charm. Smiles abounded as we stopped in at Five Guys Hamburger restaurant. Employees brought him water in a bowl, and asked if they could get a photo with him. Customers at the stores we visited soon became fans of Charlie on facebook and looked forward to seeing him again when he came back.
All of our dreams for a bright future continued to stay forefront in our thoughts and every action we took. We had faith that he would get well and stay well. So when he had a bout of despondency it was natural to take him back to his old friends at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital believing he would get well. Within an hour of the signs that Charlie wasn’t feeling well, and his arrival at Brazos, Charlie collapsed. We were terrified. Once again, Charlie was fighting for his life. Doctor Buchanan’s hands were tied as he tried to decipher Charlie’s blood against the horse values he had to use because no information was available on donkeys. I took my cot and stayed with him in his stall for over a week as they stabilized baby Charlie. I was truly scared and seldom left his side.
Doctor Buchanan thought at first that Charlie was having problems digesting food and that it was being trapped in his intestines causing an increase of ammonia. Ammonia disorients and depresses. Ammonia build up also causes the patient to head press and walk in circles. I watched in Sadness as Charlie did all of these things. I do feel some comfort that Charlie always knew who I was even at the height of his Ammonia poisoning. I know he took comfort in my continued presence in his stall in the ICU ward at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital. And, slowly, very slowly Charlie recovered. During this time, we also rescued a little fellow Charlie’s age that we also brought to BVEH for treatment. After a period of quarantine, we decided to put them together to help Charlie learn to be a donkey. Kirby was a miracle in Charlie’s life. They bonded immediately, and I felt very good about their friendship.
In a few weeks, Doctor Buchanan felt he had resolved the issues causing Charlie so much distress, and we were allowed to take Charlie and Kirby home. It was great fun watching the two of them play. They ran together and cuddled together. Truly, they had become best friends. Sadly, within two weeks Charlie was right back in the hospital, but this time he was accompanied by Kirby. Doctor Buchanan came up with a brilliant plan after he learned of the friendship that had developed between Charlie and Kirby. He would look up what he needed to know from each test that he took, compare it to the values indicated for horses, and then compare those values to the healthy baby Kirby. His brilliance paid off and he was able to diagnose the problem. Charlie had a shunt. From what he could tell through his research, Charlie was the fourth known case in equine in the past thirty years, and the only donkey recorded. With sadness and resolve, Doctor Buchanan recommended that we take Charlie to Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital for a CT scan.
Our rescue homes hundreds of animals, so we have a long standing, warm relationship with the staff at TAMU. Familiar faces were there to greet us when we pulled up with both Charlie and Kirby. They too, saw the wisdom of both providing Charlie with a friend, and having Kirby to compare Charlie’s biological values to since no real medical information is available on donkeys. Charlie was so brave, as they tested him. He had a liver biopsy, another ultrasound, and then he was scheduled for a CT scan. I was dismayed to learn that I could not stay with Charlie. Unlike BVEH, TAMU is not a private practice. The Large Animal Hospital is part of TAMU’s teaching facility so rules meant I could not stay. After learning this, I was even more grateful for Kirby. At least, I could visit and sit with Charlie in my arms. He loved that. He would move into position and allow me to pull him into my lap. There he would just go soft, completely relaxed. I hummed quietly in his ear, as he would listen to my heartbeat. This had always brought him comfort. Kirby would come and stand next to us. He knew his friend was very sick.
Meanwhile, around the world prayers were being sent by thousands of people who had never met Charlie. The staff at TAMU worked fervently to save him. I knew how much they wanted him to walk out of there a happy, healthy donkey. I watched as Charlie worked his magic. Love poured out in the ICU unit at TAMU. Charlie had that power. The love was like a blanket wrapping all of us in hope. We all believed we could save him. We needed to save him. We tried so hard. And, Charlie believed in us.
For days and days energy was coming to all of us from around the world to guide Charlie down a path of healing. When Charlie went in for the surgery to save his life, our hearts could not fathom his loss, so we believed that surgery would be successful. When he emerged from surgery alive we all rejoiced. A collective sigh of relief was felt around the world. Charlie was going to be alright. I took videos of Charlie being naughty chewing on my toes and pulling my seat apart in his stall. He truly seemed to be on the road to recovery, and I agreed to go to LaGrange TX to rescue five donkeys. Doctor Sara Sammons reported to me that he was having fun and playing in his stall when I called. He was alert and doing well. The rescue in LaGrange did not go well. The donkeys were not tame, and we were unable to get all five loaded. I came home with two, took them to BVEH for quarantine and headed home exhausted. I was not expecting the call I got at 6:30 am. Doctor Sammons was on the line telling me that Charlie was not going to make it. He took a turn at 3 am and started showing signs of great pain. The operation was not successful after all. His liver was not able to handle the new blood flow and portal hypertension had set in. He was going to die. I needed to come immediately. I called Johnny, and headed to the rescue to hook up the trailer. I was too distraught to drive so Johnny’s cousin George drove as we headed in through pouring rain. I was still in a state of shock, not quite believing what I had heard. Numbness was setting in. When I walked into ICU, I knew. The looks on all of the faces in the room told me, I was not imagining what I had heard. The sadness was palpable. Still, I asked them to save him. They hung their heads and said, there is nothing left to save Charlie. Nothing. All I had left was the ability to give Charlie a peaceful, pain free escape.
I could not make that decision. I needed time. Charlie was not hurting at the moment. He was given pain medication and now was standing. He came to me and nuzzled me. I sat down, and pulled him into my lap where we stayed for over two hours. I held him, loved him, and hummed quietly in his ear. He was smiling, he was comfortable, he was contented, and I shook my head that I was ready.
Sara administered a tranquilizer into his tube, and Charlie never moved. His head was over my heart, and I felt his fuzzy ears on my nose as I nuzzled him back. We were one. Then, she asked if I was ready? Of course not. Of course I was not ready, but something made me move my head slowly up and down. He was so peaceful, so contented resting in my arms, and at 9:47 am he took flight. Sara cried with me and held us both tightly. She had maintained her professional status throughout and could no longer hold back her tears either. The room was suddenly cold and silent. I could not hear or feel or think. I was completely numb. George had to take over. He helped to lay Charlie on his favorite traveling cushion in the back seat of the truck. We covered him with a blanket to keep him warm, and Oliver my dog lay down across him to protect him. Kirby had to ride back in the trailer we brought. We could tell he was grieving too. He knew. Charlie was gone.
The ride back was silent only interrupted by outbursts of tears and Charlie’s name being called out. All of us were in a state of shock on that rainy, gloomy Sunday afternoon. In his short 111 days on this earth, Charlie had profoundly affected all of us. We knew that there were going to be tears around the world for this amazing little donkey with the heart of a tiger.
We brought Charlie back into his room at the ranch while Tim dug Charlie’s grave. At noon, the sun came out finally for a short period and we laid our beautiful baby to rest. He was laid on his favorite cushion with a whole bag of carrots next to him. He was covered with a warm, cozy blanket as we said goodbye. None of us will ever be the same.
When Doctor Keith Chaffin called from TAMU to offer his condolences I knew from his voice that Charlie had gotten to him, too. I told him there was something he could do. I asked him to launch research to help donkeys. I asked him to collaborate with Brazos Valley Equine Hospital and The Donkey Sanctuary to identify areas of study about donkeys that were lacking in medical journals. Then, Charlie’s next miracle happened. He said, if we find the funding he would see to it that the research would go forward on donkeys. It will be called The Charlie Project. I knew someone as special as Charlie could not have been taken from us so soon without a reason. Charlie’s work here is not done. We pray that we are able to gain access to the grants needed to launch these much needed studies, so that the next person who brings in a dearly loved baby donkey will be able to hand them over to medical staff prepared with the knowledge they need to save their life.
Charlie’s life was a miracle from his first breath of air until his last. This research will be his legacy and his greatest gift to us all. I will always love you Charlie.
“If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”
-by Marjorie Farabee