The Whatcom Humane Society and other animal advocates are trying to stop a weekend fundraiser at Ferndale High School in which people play basketball while riding donkeys, saying such games are stressful and cruel to the animals.
As it has for about 41 years, the Saturday, Feb. 13, event raises money for the Ferndale FFA club. A total of eight donkeys, split into two teams, from Donkey Sports Inc. out of Entiat will be in front of a crowd in the school’s gym.
For days, opponents and supporters of the event have been battling each other on social media, essentially since the humane society posted its concerns Feb. 7 on its Facebook page after hearing from worried community members.
“Animals used to perform at these types of events can be subjected to abuse and can be placed in abusive situations. These types of events can be dangerous to both the animals and people (participants, guests) involved, can subject the animals to stressful and cruel treatment and can teach children that this type of indifferent behavior towards animals is acceptable,” Laura Clark, executive director of the society, said in an interview Thursday, Feb. 11.
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The humane society expressed concern about the donkeys being pushed, pulled, kicked or punched by riders.
“Among other things, our mission states that our organization educates the community to promote humane treatment and respect for all animals. It is our strong belief that events such as donkey basketball do just the opposite,” Clark added.
Bruce Wick, who has owned Donkey Sports since 1980, said he was surprised to hear about the Whatcom Humane Society’s complaints, saying that other humane societies have shown up when his donkeys play basketball elsewhere.
Donkey basketball also has been a fundraiser at Mount Baker and Meridian high schools, as well as in other parts of the country.
“They come by to see how the animals look and to watch the games to see everything is like it’s supposed to be,” Wick said. “For me, what I see in donkey basketball is people riding donkeys. If you’re against riding donkeys, you’re probably against donkey basketball.”
Wick said the donkeys are shod with rubber shoes to keep them from slipping on the gym floor, which had been among the concerns from animal advocates.
I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We have checked and double-checked how these animals are treated.
Linda Quinn, superintendent for the Ferndale School District
He said they’re not stressed by being in front of crowds nor are riders allowed to strike the donkeys or jerk their heads. Pulling their reins is how you lead donkeys, he said, and it doesn’t hurt them.
“The donkeys are very used to playing donkey basketball so being in a gymnasium, being around a crowd is not a big thing for them,” Wick said, adding that at halftime the crowd gets to pet the animals. “They like the attention.”
The Ferndale FFA couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Linda Quinn, superintendent for the Ferndale School District, said she wasn’t going to cancel the game because concerns were raised too close to the event, when FFA students already had invested time and money in getting the donkeys here.
“It’s very far down the line. It’s not an illegal activity,” Quinn said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We have checked and double-checked how these animals are treated.”
Quinn said she was getting pressure from the community to support the FFA students and pressure from animal rights activists around the country to stop it.
She said she wanted the students themselves to later decide whether to continue with the event, noting that part of what FFA students do is study controversial issues related to animals and agriculture.
Event supporters, including on the Ferndale School District’s Facebook page, said they grew up watching the games and considered it fun for the whole family. They said it was a good fundraiser for the FFA and countered that it wasn’t cruel to animals.
Both sides posted videos from YouTube to argue their point.
“I’m not arguing in favor of donkey basketball at all,” Quinn said. “I’m arguing in favor of a democratic process and a learning process for kids, where they hear two sides of an issue from adults who are reasonable and rational.”
Clark said the Whatcom Humane Society isn’t the only group that’s concerned, saying others paying attention outside of Whatcom County include Pasado’s Safe Haven, Northwest Animal Rights Network, and several horse/donkey rescue groups.
“These donkeys are not willing participants in this ‘game,’ ” said Laura Henderson, executive director for Pasado’s Safe Haven, adding that such events “tell kids that it’s funny to watch a frightened animal struggle.”