One of the Barron Park neighborhood's beloved and iconic donkeys, Miner Forty Niner, has died, according to his handlers. He was 32.
Miner, better known as Niner, was euthanized on Wednesday, Sept. 28, after having respiratory and other health problems, donkey handler Inge Harding-Barlow said.
The venerable donkey was part of the neighborhood's legend, along with his companion, Perry. The two donkeys are the latest in a long line of donkeys that stretched back to 1934 when Bol Park was part of a farm owned by Dr. Cornelis Bol.
When Bol died in 1965, the Barron Park Association, led by resident Richard Placone, helped secure the purchase of part of the farm from the Bol family. It was the last large piece of open space in the neighborhood, according to Barron Park historian Douglas Graham.
As descendants of a proud equine history, Niner and Perry entertained thousands of Palo Alto visitors from their paddock in the current Barron Park Pasture owned by James Witt and during Sunday walks during which they grazed in the park. The donkeys took part in parades, weddings and even funerals, Harding-Barlow said.
Niner, who was the larger of the two (Perry is a miniature donkey), had a friendly and curious nature. He would regularly hang his head over the fence to receive pets or try to nibble handbags or other potential sources of treats.
He was born in the Mojave Desert. Many generations of feral donkeys in the Southwest deserts descended from abandoned or escaped mining stock, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Their large numbers were considered destructive to desert habitats, so they were rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management and relocated or given up for adoption.
Niner, while still a yearling, was taken to Los Altos to live with a family, where he stayed for 14 years, Harding-Barlow said. He was given to Barron Park as a companion to another donkey, Mickey, who was the last surviving donkey born at Bol's farm.
His initial introduction to Palo Alto in June 1998 was somewhat challenging, Harding-Barlow recalled. He was "at the peak of his donkeyhood" and pictured himself as the "alpha donkey." But that didn't sit well with Mickey, who wasn't about to relinquish his position, Harding-Barlow said. Niner fell into step in the donkey order until Mickey died, she added.
Niner had other endearing and, at times, frustrating traits.
"He was an escape artist ... If he found a hole in the fence or under the fence, big as he was, he would find a way through it," Harding-Barlow said. "One of the worst times was when he got onto the VA emergency helicopter pad."
Invariably, there would be shouts of "donkey on the loose" at Gunn High School or searches in the park for the wayward beast, and Niner would always be led back on a dog leash. He could even pull the gate bolt out with his nose and mouth and nudge the door open, and eventually it had to be padlocked, Harding-Barlow said.
Niner also had a few phobias to overcome, including a fear of wooden bridges. He refused to cross wooden bridges and would rear and practically knock his handler over, Harding-Barlow said. He finally conquered his fear after Harding-Barlow and handlers Leland and Edith Smith walked him back and forth across a wooden bridge near Gunn several times for a few days, Harding-Barlow said.
Also, his early trauma of being rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management helicopters made him hate the sound of the rotors, Harding-Barlow said. He would go berserk when helicopters landed at the VA or when they arrived to transport construction materials, she recalled.
"Leland Smith was the only person who could really handle him," she said. "He managed to coax him out of his bad moods. It was his patience and love, really, that made Niner into the lovable donkey he became."
As he aged into his 20s, Niner mellowed. He began to like children. And he even shared his special geriatric donkey feed with one particular ground squirrel.
"It was so sweet. The ground squirrel was practically sitting on his nose and he would not object at all," Harding-Barlow said.
When Perry, now 22, arrived, the smaller donkey took his position as the beta male. But like many siblings, they had a love-hate relationship.
"They loved each other, but they occasionally quarreled," Harding-Barlow said.
The Barron Park donkeys cemented their legacy when their movements were filmed for the animated donkey in the "Shrek" movie. There was some debate about whether Perry or Niner would be used as the model for the film's donkey. Niner, perhaps in a bid to upstage his pipsqueak partner, was ultimately undone by his curious nature and his disregard for pretension.
"We were up on top of Strawberry Hill, Jim Bronson and I. One of the people sketching the donkeys was in his early 20s. He was so proud of his big, long boots that were handmade for him. They probably cost $700 to $1,000. Niner sniffs the boots, and starts to lick them and starts to bite them. He was starting to eat this guy's boots," Harding-Barlow remembered.
Harding-Barlow wrote a "last will and testament" on the donkey's behalf last week, which states in part:
"I have little in the way of material things to leave. Donkeys are wiser than men. They do not set great store upon things. They do not waste their days hoarding property. They do not ruin their sleep worrying about how to keep the objects they have, and obtain the objects they have not.
"There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my faith. These I leave to all those who have loved me, to my Handlers, who I know will mourn me most and to Perry who has been my 'brother' and constant companion for 18 years. If I should list all those who have loved me, I could write a book. Perhaps it is vain of me to boast when I am so near death, which returns all beasts and vanities to dust, but I have always thought that I have been an extremely lovable donkey."
In one last word of farewell for Niner, Harding-Barlow wrote, "Whenever you visit my pasture, always remember my long happy life with you all! No matter how deep my eternal sleep, I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from welcoming you with my usual bray."
Perry has been removed from the paddock and relocated for what handlers said will be a short stay. Harding-Barlow said she hopes that another donkey companion can be found for him.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the pasture became part of Bol Park. The Weekly regrets the error.