Tim Shaw reassures each of his 10 donkeys as he unchains them, one by one. He leads each one to a 10-gallon bucket of water.
"Don't be afraid of him. He's not going to hurt ya," Shaw repeats as each animal gets its turn to drink.
Despite the reassuring words, each donkey approaches the bucket reluctantly as Shaw gently tugs its chain. Each hesitates and glances at the onlooker before taking quick sips from the bucket.
"Drink some more. It's OK," Shaw urges.
He explains that the donkeys are nervous because they aren't accustomed to having people other than their owners watch them drink. What doesn't bother them, he says, is when 1,000 people scream at them from gym bleachers as they do their job -- playing basketball.
The animals in the Shaw Brothers Donkey Ball troupe were trucked last night from northeastern Pennsylvania to Ellicott City, where they performed at Centennial High School. The donkeys were ridden, pulled and cajoled by anxious students who played four 10-minute quarters.
To Shaw, a member of the Sayre, Pa., operation that rents the donkeys' services for basketball games in the mid-Atlantic states, it's easy work for the animals.
But to budding animal rights activists at Centennial, who held a protest before the event, donkey basketball is cruel.
"Everything in our society shows that animals are just there to exploit," said Emily Chamblin, 16, an 11th-grader at Centennial. "The people riding them have never ridden before. They could be kicked, hit by balls. . . . "
Chamblin, a member of the Centennial Animal Rights Group, said the organization plans to ask the Howard County Board of Education to establish a policy that would prevent animals from being used in sporting events hosted by the schools.
The group was unable to persuade Principal Sylvia Patillo not to allow the donkeys at Centennial. Patillo said she had discussed the school fund-raising event with the school's animal rights advocates, but decided not to stop it. However, the group believes their protest affected attendance. A donkey-basketball game at Centennial last year filled the gym. Last night, it was less than half-full.
A spokeswoman for county public schools said there was no administrative policy banning donkey basketball.
The group also gained support from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Rockville in Montgomery County. Rebecca Gagnon, educational coordinator for PETA, said the donkeys suffer from stress during long trips and should be treated as farm animals.
Margaret Davis, 19, a senior at Centennial, saw the donkeys yesterday afternoon and felt sorry for them.
"I don't know if they're hurting the animals or not, but I don't think animals should be dragged around for play," Davis said. "They have rights, too. Just because they can't speak for themselves doesn't mean they should be treated badly."
Shaw said donkey basketball has been played in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and New York State for the past 32 years. He contends that the animals are well-fed, get plenty of water and see a veterinarian every week. He said his family has 60 donkeys that play basketball and baseball.
Some students said critics were overreacting.
"I don't think it's abuse," said Michael Waldburn, 15, an 11th-grader. "It think it's like riding a horse, almost."
Kathy Elms, 15, a ninth-grader, said she watched last year's donkey basketball game and believed that the animals appeared to have been treated well.
But her mother, JoAnne Elms, looked uneasy as she stared at the donkeys outside the school.
"I was looking at them and I though about how sad they seem," Elms said. "They should be out in a field somewhere, enjoying themselves."