- Rachel Hellman
- Hamilton Hastings
An event at Arnold's Rescue Center in Brownington on Saturday had all the trappings of a birthday party for a 1-year-old boy. Blue balloons lined the road to a wooden pavilion. The party hosts hung a colorful piñata and served strawberry shortcake. The crowd of more than 50 people lined up to wish the guest of honor, Hamilton Hastings, a happy birthday.
Hamilton, for his part, had little interest in the festivities — probably because Hamilton is a donkey.
He's not just any donkey, though: He's one of the world's roughly 500 Baudet du Poitou donkeys, a critically endangered species that originated in France. These donkeys are larger than most and are known for their shaggy "dreadlock" coat. One young partygoer was surprised to spot eyes underneath Hamilton's long brown bangs.
"They look almost prehistoric," said Bari Fischer, who helps run Arnold's with its founder, Sue Arnold.
The nonprofit rescue center takes in farm animals. But in May 2020, it became a breeding facility for the rare donkey species when it received a gift of three female Poitou donkeys — and the only frozen Poitou semen in the world. The semen was more than 25 years old, so breeding proved challenging. Finally, in June 2021, under the guidance of specialists at the University of Illinois, Hamilton was born.
His birth was a challenge, and the newborn donkey developed an infection. Hamilton wound up in the ICU at Myhre Equine Clinic in Rochester, N.H., for 12 days. And then his mother, Quiche, tried to kill him. That's normal behavior for wild donkeys, according to Fischer, but it meant Hamilton had to be taught how to bucket-feed because he couldn't get sustenance from her.
Luckily, Ophelia, another Poitou donkey at the center, took Hamilton under her wing.
"When I take Hamilton out of the paddock, she will holler just like a mother" having her baby taken away, Fischer said of the surrogate.
Hamilton has become a local celebrity. Given the interest — and his rough start to life — Fischer and Arnold felt a proper birthday celebration was in order. As guest after guest bid Hamilton well-wishes, he responded in a manner befitting a 1-year-old donkey: He took a glorious bite out of a cardboard "Happy Birthday" sign.