Before opening the gate to the pasture, Cindy Bellis-Jones reassures a visitor: "If they grab your coat with their mouth, it's not that they're trying to bite you. They just don't want you to leave."
Those might just be some of the most endearing words ever spoken.
The herd quickly comes over. Soon there's a nose fogging up the camera lens and a tug on a coat sleeve.
Bellis-Jones doesn't need to bring treats to get their attention. "They crave being touched," she says. "They think being touched is better than eating."
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In all of the Valentine's noise this time of year, it's strange that there's hardly a mention of miniature donkeys, because miniature donkeys, it turns out, are all about love.
Bellis-Jones and her husband, Hugh, own Fox Run Farm in Bourbon County. It's 50 acres that seem to have been put on the map for the sole purpose of making animals feel they've found Shangri-La.
In the kitchen a cockatiel is whistling by the window. In the office, an African leopard tortoise is pondering a choice of greens, and a rat is exercising in its cage. "That's my last rat," says Bellis-Jones, who taught middle-school science for 27 years and knows rats. This one needed a home and is now "living a good rat's life."
The current inventory also includes two horses, 10 ponies, dogs, chickens, cats, a bearded dragon, several species of frogs. Birds in transit decide to break their journey there.
Around stockyards and stables, Bellis-Jones is known as the "pony lady" for all of her rescues and her ribbons. She's spent much of her life taking in unwanted ponies and turning them into valued members of society.
"After leaving our farm, most of the ponies have led a useful and loved life, from backyards to show rings," she says.
To watch her approach a newly rescued feral pony in a pen behind her barn is to see a "whisperer" in action, though she would call it listening, not whispering.
But since getting her first miniature donkeys in 2008, she's become a cheerleader for those unassuming beasts too.
"Donkeys are great," she says. "Donkeys are humble. That's the word to use. Other animals step out and show off in the spotlight, but donkeys just stand there. When you have time for them, they appreciate it."
A country kind of love
Bellis-Jones keeps her donkeys in a small field next to the house, mainly because of coyotes. "Donkeys are great protectors, they'll do what they can do, but they're not supermen." Big donkeys are amazingly strong, and a jack will protect his girls to his last breath, she says. But the little donkeys wouldn't stand much of a chance against a pack of coyotes.
Bellis-Jones' herd includes one jack, whose proper name is Country Music's Tony Booth. He's a son of Country Music's George Jones, who lives and breeds at a farm in Texas: Country Music Miniature Donkeys.
Tony Booth is, let's admit it, not a household name in the music world like his sire, or his full brother, Country Music's Merle Haggard. But in terms of temperament, Bellis-Jones says her Tony is a star. "The best compliment a jack can get is for people to not realize it's a jack. You can always buy a beautiful animal, but can you buy a useful, gentle animal?"
Her Tony is gentle. In the field with him are five jennets, Julie, Bella, Eclipse, Chloe, Bitta, probably all in foal to Tony, and one youngster, Dottie, who is headed to a scrupulously vetted home in Tennessee.
"This is not an industry. I try to help people get nice pets," she says. And she tries to get nice people for her pets. After all, with the right care and companionship, miniature donkeys can live 30-35 years.
The psychiatrist is in
Fox Run Farm has been home to a variety of other hoofed animals over the years — a camel (for 16 years), llamas, deer, alpacas, goats, a zorse (part zebra, part horse). Bellis-Jones' experience with them helps her appreciate donkeys that much more. They're not the least bit high-strung: "If they're scared, they'll stop. A horse will run over you," she says. They don't spit like llamas, don't bite like camels, and they won't scamper all over your car like a goat.
She persuaded a friend at a nearby farm to acquire a little herd. Barbara Ryan, a critical-care nurse at UK, now has 10 mini donkeys. She says they're her psychiatric counselors.
"They're really nice, and so calming," she says. "All they want is to be petted. 'Please touch me,' they say."
Bellis-Jones says one of her favorite things to do in the summer is take a book and sit down to read in their field.
"The babies will come right over and lie down around me. They'll roll on their backs and say, 'Can you rub the belly, please? Oh, and don't forget the ears.'"