For years, Lexington-based Big Ass Fans has provided financial support to a Colorado donkey shelter as a tribute to the company's mascot, Fanny. Now the company is taking it a step further. It plans to help pay for the rescue of a donkey that befriended American soldiers in Iraq and is destined to become a therapy pet for families of military members who were wounded or killed in battle.
Smoke, as the donkey is called, was malnourished when he was adopted by military personnel based near Fallujah in August 2008, said retired Col. John Folsom, who founded and leads Wounded Warriors Family Support.
Folsom said soldiers would send photos of Smoke to their children, and the smoky-gray donkey would get care packages and fan mail from the kids.
"Smoke brought a lot of joy to kids of dads who were deployed to a very hostile part of the world," Folsom said.
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The donkey also provided companionship and humor, of sorts, to the soldiers. In fact, his name came not so much from his color but from the time he snatched a lit cigarette out of a soldier's fingers and ate it.
Folsom has big plans for the donkey once he's in the United States. Smoke will become a therapy animal at retreats that Folsom's organization plans to run for families of soldiers wounded or killed during combat.
But getting Smoke out of Iraq has proved to be troublesome. He was turned loose by a military squad that came later, after Folsom's unit had left. Folsom, though, used high-resolution photographs to distinguish Smoke from the other donkeys fending for themselves in the Iraqi landscape.
He turned to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International for assistance, and that group has picked up Smoke and has him in their care. But transporting a donkey isn't as easy as transporting the pet dogs and cats of soldiers that the SPCA International often brings back to the United States as part of its Operation Baghdad Pups program.
"This is definitely our first donkey rescue," said Stephanie Scott, a spokeswoman for the SPCA.
Dogs and cats usually go on normal commercial flights, but a donkey requires an equine flight, which is uncommon in the area.
The group plans to hire a truck to carry Smoke across Iraq to the Turkish border and fly him back from Istanbul.
"We have never tried to drive across the country and the border," she said. "That's a huge safety risk from our perspective, but it seems to be the only option."
And that's how Big Ass Fans is getting involved. Company spokeswoman Jennifer Simanek said the company plans to help defer some of the costs, which Scott estimates to be $10,000 to $25,000. By comparison, bringing a dog or cat to the United States costs about $4,000, she said.
The Lexington company has been talking up Smoke via its Facebook and Twitter accounts in hopes of raising money from customers, too.
"It's just a natural fit for us," Simanek said.
And for Folsom, it's a well-deserved effort for the donkey, "who did a lot of good service for us," he said.
"He works well with people," he said, "and has got a great story."