PLEASANT VALLEY — Mike and Bonnie Gross bought a miniature donkey 10 years ago, after putting one of their horses to sleep.
The couple figured the 4-month-old jennet would keep the remaining horse company.
Soon after purchasing the animal, the Grosses, who live on about seven acres just east of here, bought another donkey so the first onewould have a playmate.
"Then we got hooked," Mike Gross said. "The more we got, the more we wanted.
"They were so affectionate -- almost like a dog. We just grew so attached to the one we had and that's the main reason we had a baby."
The Grosses now have 50 jennets, two jacks and a number of foals. They breed the animals and sell most of the foals within a week of their birth.
However, a foal, which grows from about 20 inches to nearly 3 feet tall, must stay with its mother for about four months, Bonnie Gross said.
"Mothers are very protective of their babies," she said. "Basically for the first three weeks, they don't like other donkeys near their babies."
The mothers do not stop at guarding and nursing their children, she said.If a foal walks up and bites its mother, the mother will bite it back.
"You can see the mothers teach the foal manners," she said. "You can really see them disciplining their babies."
Despite the popular stereotype of donkeys as stupid, obstinate creatures, the Grossessaid they are lovable, affectionate animals that make good pets.
"It's not stubbornness," said Bonnie Gross. "It's actually intelligence."
She said miniature donkeys are great pets because they are friendlier than ponies or horses, do not need much care or space, and do not kick when they are scared.
"They're really nice pets," she said. "They're very comparable to dogs as far as personality goes. They're much more laid-back than horses."
Mary Ellen Crown, a 55-year-old Taylorsville resident, said her grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 13, enjoy playing with the three miniature donkeys she bought from the Grosses.
"My grandchildren see eye-to-eye with them," she said. "They are absolutely darling.
"The more attention they get the better they are. People just fall in love with them."
But the Grosses warned that jacks should be gelded if they are to be pets,so they will be less aggressive.
"They become very docile," Mike Gross said.
Ann M. Kaminsky, 44, who bought an ungelded jack from the Grosses 18 months ago to guard sheep at her farm north of Manchester, said she must keep the donkey with the cows.
"He's great as apet," she said. "He's fine with humans. He just wants to breed all the other animals."
Donkeys seldom enjoy being alone, so people should get at least two, Bonnie Gross said.
"Donkeys are very sociable and they're very herd-oriented," she said. "They like to be with another donkey."
"That's something that's bred into them also," her husband continued. "Just like people."
In addition to being good as pets, the animals are a sound investment, the Grosses said. They don't require much care and their upkeep costs about $150 a year each, they said.
The average breeding jennet can produce one foal every 13 or 14 months, Bonnie Gross said. And a foal will sell for prices ranging from $400 to $2,000 for a male and $2,500 to $5,500 for a female, depending on the donkey's color, conformation and personality, she said.
Also, miniature Sicilian donkeys no longer can be importedfrom Italy because few remain there. Therefore, the demand for the animals in this country must be satiated by the 7,000 donkeys in America and the offspring they produce.
"It's like putting money in thebank, except you get to look at it and enjoy it," Mike Gross said.
The Grosses have hooked up a closed-circuit television monitor in their barn so they can keep an eye on the donkeys, especially the jennets when they are foaling.
"We know the habits of most of our breeding jennets," he said. "Most times they don't need help, but we liketo be there just in case."
One way to prevent a birthing problem is to use 32- to 35-inch breeding jennets, his wife added.
"The donkeys are just like miniature horses," she said. "If you get them toosmall, then they have a difficult time getting babies out."
Although donkeys are originally from a desert climate, they acclimate quickly to other temperatures, Mike Gross said. Miniature donkeys can be found in Alaska, Canada, Florida and Mexico, he added.
He enjoys watching the donkeys run, because they follow one behind the other, with their heads down and their ears back.
"It looks like a conga line," he said, laughing.