It was not a good relationship. Cathy was withdrawn and stoic. Ed felt thwarted. There was a lot of work to be done on the farm and Ed knew exactly what he needed from Cathy. That’s why he had brought her there. But Cathy was resistant almost from the start. She was noncompliant and stubborn. Ed couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting through to her. They just could not communicate.

Why was this happening? Ed thought she’d be happy to do this work. Didn’t it come naturally to her? Anyway, wasn’t Cathy his? Wasn’t he entitled to tell her what to do? Didn’t everybody understand that?

Ed saw the authorities drive onto his property as he raised the metal rod. But he had been frustrated too long to stop. No longer able to control himself, he brought the rod down on Cathy.

Let’s stop for a second. What kind of images are you getting as you read this story? Admittedly, these are horrible events no matter how you’re picturing Cathy. It doesn’t really get any better if she has four legs and a tail. The point here, as I hope to demonstrate, is that miscommunication, frustration and violence can afflict any relationship, whether it involves humans, animals or both.

By now you might have figured out that Cathy isn’t a woman. She’s a donkey. If you’re like me, you’ve never paid much attention to donkeys but it turns out I live just a few miles away from the Donkey Sanctuary (, Canada’s largest rehabilitation center for injured, abused and unwanted donkeys and mules. I visited the Sanctuary recently and Managing Director Kim Hayes told me a story about one of her animals that reminded me of the kind of issues that are often discussed in Psychology Today when people talk about their own troubled relationships.

You might have wondered what a donkey has to do with the problems you and your partner face but the analogies are stronger than you’d think. Here is a donkey story that Kim told me. I’ll spare you some of the more extreme physical details. Believe me, they’re pretty hard to take.

The donkey’s real name was Apollo, but I’ll continue to refer to her as Cathy. Cathy was brought to the Shelter by a Provincial Agency. In short, someone called the cops because she was suffering from extreme neglect and abuse. She had been beaten and mistreated in just about every way possible. Not surprisingly she was terrified.

When representatives of the Sanctuary drove down the laneway to rescue Cathy, they could see her “owner” hitting her with a metal rod. The man made no attempt to hide his violence, and even handed the rod over to the Sanctuary’s Manager, saying, “Here. You’re gonna need this.”

Cathy was taken to her new home. Initially, life was very difficult for her. Long after Cathy’s physical wounds healed, she still showed signs of trauma. After six years (yes, years) Cathy finally started to show signs of trust around people. Just what happened to produce all this fear?

Cathy’s owner brought her to his farm to guard cattle. Her role was clear from Day 1 and there was no discussion about it. Not all donkeys make good guardians, and Cathy did not perform to the owner’s expectations. The situation was complicated by the fact that Cathy was left out with the cattle all the time and did not receive the socialization required for her to become comfortable with people or make her easy to handle.

When things became difficult, the owner tried to handle Cathy as he did his horses and cattle, using methods those animals could understand and respond to. Unfortunately, these training methods were incomprehensible to Cathy. Unlike horses, donkeys evolved in a desert environment and are much more independent animals. Their nature is to evaluate situations for themselves rather than socially and, as a result, they are not responsive to traditional cues of dominance or submission.

When Cathy did not respond the way her owner expected her to, he interpreted her behavior as “stubborn” or “deliberately disobedient” and attempted to make Cathy “behave” by using force. This force may have started with a slap, but donkeys have stoic natures and a slap did not garner the reaction the owner was looking for. This left him feeling angry, frustrated, and perhaps a little foolish. “Behave, damn you! I own you! I’ll show you who’s boss!” Things did not improve. Not surprisingly, the owner intensified the punishment to the point where the donkey attempted to defend herself with teeth and hooves.

At this point, the owner felt fear as well as anger, and the beatings became even more severe. The owner spent less and less time with Cathy, to the point of failing to provide basic health care as well as a clean, healthy living environment. On those rare occasions when handling was attempted, contact usually degraded into beatings. Their relationship descended into a downward spiral of anger, miscommunication, unmet needs, frustration and physical and psychological abuse.

Farmers and donkeys are at an obvious communication disadvantage: They belong to two different species. They don’t share a natural history – a fact nowhere more obvious than the farmer expecting his physical dominance to “correct” Cathy’s errant behaviour. Farmers and donkeys make assumptions about each other’s motivation and behaviour that are frequently wrong. Donkeys do not come with an Operating Manual (for that matter, neither do farmers). There was no Donkeys for Dummies gracing the shelves of the farmer’s bookshelf. Worse yet, he didn’t seem to own a copy of my book, Caveman Logic, in which he would have learned that we often make up stories about things when we don’t understand them. Frequently those stories bear little resemblance to the truth.

The “I own you ! Behave, damn you !” School of Thought has fortunately become less prevalent (or legal), but the inability to read each other’s social signals and provide for basic needs is hardly a thing of the past. Better communication, education or understanding could have saved endless frustration for both the farmer and the donkey. Less frustration would have meant fewer beatings. This was a relationship that didn’t need to end in legal intervention and rescue. Admittedly, it ended better than many, but it never needed to go this far. Cathy is a donkey, not a woman, so you’re unlikely to hear about her on the evening news. But the underlying principles are pretty similar.

The next time you experience relationship conflict, think about Cathy’s Tale and all the people and animals in need of better communication.


Written with Yana Hoffman (with special thanks to Kim Hayes.)

American Gothic with Black Eye concept and image © 2012 by Hank Davis & Yana Hoffman.

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