Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tricked by a donkey

Yesterday afternoon, when giving my donkeys a bunch of fresh thistles (their caviar), I was suddenly alarmed by the physical appearance of Fanette. Alongside the sleek silvery hide of Moshé, the 3-year-old female was terribly shaggy, and I had the impression that the forms of  bones were protruding in the region of her rump, as if she were becoming dangerously skeletal. The following photos, taken this morning, prove that Fanette is indeed shaggy, but they don't quite reflect the vision of my donkey that shocked me yesterday afternoon.



I jumped into the car and set off to St-Jean-en-Royans to ask the veterinarian for advice. When I explained that Fanette had not yet eliminated all her winter fur, the veterinarian told me that this has something to with the exceptional weather conditions over the last few months. Apparently he encounters a steady stream of owners of all kinds of animals—dogs, cats, horses, etc—who have observed the same phenomenon. In any case, the shaggy appearance of an animal that has retained a lot of its winter fur must not be interpreted as a symptom of any kind of health problem.

Have you seen any traces of diarrhea? No.

Are the donkey's rib bones visible? No, not at all, merely something that looks like rump bones.

Does the donkey appear to be eating well? Yes. Fanette gulped down the bunch of thistles so quickly that Moshé couldn't get in for a nibble.

Are you sure that your vision of "protruding rump bones" is not simply an illusion brought about by the presence of patches of thick fur alongside areas of bare hide? When I think about it, maybe you're right...

After leaving the veterinarian, I nevertheless dropped in at the local agricultural store to buy a bag of oats, on the off-chance that Fanette might be needing some kind of a boost in her summer diet. This morning, I had the impression that the donkeys looked at me as if they wondered whether I had gone crazy, serving them up fresh thistles and oats in the middle of their season of plenty, when they're surrounded by acres of luxurious grass and tasty weeds of all kinds.

In the following photo, you can distinguish the ridges of thick fur around Fanette's rump that looked to me like protruding bones, particularly when she was standing on sloping ground, and I was looking at her from behind.


You can also see the excessively fat bellies of both animals. The veterinarian told me that, ideally, I should be able to run my fingers over the sides of a donkey and feel the rib bones. For the moment, the main thing I feel on Fanette is fur. But how can you persuade a donkey to go on a diet?

OK, I was tricked by Fanette's fur. Now, when you've stopped laughing at me, let me ask you a simple question. Why do animals grow fur in winter, and then lose it in summer? Many of you probably said: To keep themselves warm in the winter cold. No, that's not a good answer. Keeping themselves warm in winter is indeed a favorable outcome of growing fur... but what I want to know is: What is the mechanism that makes the animal grow fur at exactly the time it's needed? You might have answered: Animals are designed that way. Fair enough... so long as you don't intend to say that God made them that way. Some of you might have added: Animals that happened to grow winter fur had a greater chance of survival (in the Darwinian sense) than animals without fur. That's true, too. But the answer I was looking for is the presence of genes, inside the donkey, that might be designated as a biological clock. A biological alarm clock, that rings a bell when the animal's fur-growing genes need to be triggered, in preparation for the forthcoming winter.

Geneticists have now identified precisely such biological clocks inside humans, and they are capable of studying the ways in which the operation of such devices can be upset by various external factors. We all know, for example, that some of our biological clocks become quite dysfunctional when we step onto a plane and fly to the Antipodes. And it takes a few days for the clocks to get back into a perfect operational state.

Getting back to Fanette, it appears that the internal mechanisms of her gene for shedding old fur have got screwed up by the weird weather. One day, donkey specialists with advanced training in genetic engineering will surely invent a technique for repairing biological clocks that have become temporarily unphased. Meanwhile, Fanette appears to be less upset than me about her shaggy appearance. And her old fur will inevitably be replaced by new fur by the start of the cold season.

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