GLOVER — Ignatz the donkey is 33 years old. He is also a hero.
He was not always 33 and he only became a hero last Wednesday afternoon, November 23.
On that day Maria Schumann stepped out of her house on the Bread and Puppet farm in Glover. From the barn behind her parents’ house she heard a commotion.
“I heard noises,” she said Sunday. “It took me a minute to figure out. Chickens were squawking, Ignatz was braying and there was a screaming sound like a human being.”
Elka Schumann, Maria’s mother, recalls looking out her kitchen window and seeing Maria walking toward the barn before breaking into a sudden run.
“It was just a lot of noise at first,” Maria Schumann said, “I didn’t know what was happening.” Then, she said, it struck her that something must be attacking the chicken pen in the barn.
“As I ran to the house the chickens came running out with feathers flying, and going bruck, brock, brawck, brawck, brawwk,” Maria Schumann said, performing the imitation of the chicken’s squawks with great gusto. She said that her young nephew in New York found the animal noises the most satisfying part of the story and demanded an encore.
Maria Schumann arrived at the barn and looked in.
“Then I saw, in the chicken yard, Ignatz with a fox in his mouth, shaking him. And then he threw him and the fox ran into the woods.”
The whole thing was over so quickly, Maria Schumann said, that she didn’t have time to see what part of the fox’s anatomy served as a handle for the donkey.
“The sad part is one chicken was missing,” she said. Whether the chicken ran off in fright or was taken earlier by the fox, no one knows.
Ignatz was seven or eight in 1980 when he was given as a gift to Peter Schumann, Maria’s father.
“I rode him and he pulled my wood for winter baking,” he said. When logging was done in the Schumanns’ sugar woods the limbs were left to fire Mr. Schumann’s outdoor ovens. “The limbs I pulled with him,” he said.
Mr. Schumann featured Ignatz in a small — actually tiny — book he wrote in 1984 called Donkey Ride Over DexterHillthat recounts an autumn ride the two shared. The book begins with Mr. Schumann putting a piece of bread into his pocket and ends with Ignatz
happily accepting the bread at the end of the ride.
Mr. Schumann originally hoped that Ignatz would protect a different group of animals.
“We hoped he would keep the coyotes out of the sheep, but he didn’t,” he said.
“He bit the ears off the sheep,” Maria Schumann added.
Whether he did that or not, the sheep took him as their leader and would follow behind him. Mr. Schumann recalled going for a walk and looking behind him to find Ignatz and a trailing flock of sheep on his trail.
“He was quite a character — the master of the sheep,” he said.
Ignatz was written up in the Chronicle once before, in February 1994. That winter there was a protracted cold spell with temperatures approaching 40 degrees below zero.
Elka Schumann said she could see ice crystals forming behind the donkey’s eyes and decided to bring him into the house. According to the caption attached to the photograph Elka took, it required two people to persuade Ignatz to go into the house, one to lead the donkey, the other to push.
Once inside, the caption went on, he was a (nearly) perfect guest.
“He only ate one book,” Elka Schumann recalls.
It has been many years since Mr. Schumann gave up riding Ignatz, and in the past few years the donkey’s health has been in decline.
“It’s been more than three or four years that he’s had founder,” Elka Schumann said. Founder is a degenerative disease of the hoof that afflicts members of the horse family.
These days he spends most of his time lying down, but he still goes for strolls when the weather is nice.
“When there was grass before the snow he would walk down to the print shop and back,” Maria Schumann said, speaking of a building 150 yards down the hill from the barn. “But it took him the whole day.”
Even without his previous vigor, Ignatz was able to rise to the proverbial challenge of a fox in the chicken house.
The situation was envisioned in another of Mr. Schumann’s books, a work for children entitled Chicken and Earmuffs. In that story Mr. Man goes out in the snow to hunt Mr. Fox, hoping to get fur to make earmuffs for his children’s cold ears. At the same time Mr. Fox is in Mr. Man’s chicken house getting food for his children’s empty stomachs.
The outraged man takes the fox to court, where the fox is ordered to turn over his pelt to warm the ears of his adversary’s children. After a series of appeals the case comes before the highest court, where God is judge.
God determines that Mr. Man has a sufficient number of chickens, but cautions the fox: “Don’t eat so many chickens, it’s not healthy. Eat mice, and stay out of trouble.”
The fox that encountered Ignatz may want to take these wise words to heart.