Jon Katz is a writer and a photographer whose books about his relationships with dogs have made him a bestselling author. His latest effort is DANCING DOGS, his first-ever collection of short stories that explores the bonds between humans and animals. In this Holiday Blog post, Jon recollects a memorable Christmas where he made a new friend: a horribly neglected donkey named Simon, who was rescued from a nearby farm. He saved the animal’s life by nursing him back to health and reading to him everyday from a book called PLATERO AND I, a story about a man and his burro.
A couple of years ago, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I got a call from an animal control officer. She and a member of the New York State Police had just raided a farm in the Adirondacks and removed a horribly neglected donkey. His name was Simon.
She knew I had two donkeys on my farm, and she wondered if I might have room in my heart and on my farm for another. We went to look at Simon. He was in horrible condition. His hooves had grown out nearly a foot and he was walking on his ankles. His skin was covered in rain rot, his teeth had grown into his jaw from lying on his side for weeks, and he was nearly dead from starvation.
A week later, Simon came to my farm. He could not stand up, and the vet said it was unlikely he would survive his wounds and injuries. He would look up at me with his big brown eyes, and I fell in love with this creature.
I went online and ordered a book I had read years ago, a Spanish classic called PLATERO AND I by Juan Ramon Jimenez. I brought it out to the pasture where Simon was lying on his side, still too weak to stand up. I lay down next to him, hand fed him some hay, vitamins and medicines. I gave him some oat and apple equine cookies. And then I started reading this magical, gentle book, a monologue between a man and his burro, who he named Platero as they wandered about their native Andalisian village of Moguer.
I read to Simon the chapter where the man removes a thorn from Platero’s hoof and is rewarded with a nuzzle. And how Platero would bray to his girlfriend burro in a distant field and reluctantly move on. I read Simon the story of Platero’s friendship with a parrot whose only pronouncement was “Ce nest rien.”
Simon loved being read to. His eyes would go wide, his breathing still. Once he rested his big head on my knee. He never moved while I was reading him stories about Platero, and he seemed to take in every word. Simon responded visibly to the attention. One day I began reading from PLATERO AND I, and Simon struggled to his feet and pressed his head against my shoulder while I read. It took me a couple of weeks to read every single story to Simon, and by the time we were finished with the book, it was clear that Simon would live.
A dentist came to work on his teeth. His coat began to grow back in for the winter. He loves fresh hay, lasagna, gourmet pasta and brown rice. Carrots and apples, too. Simon loves children and stands still for many minutes while they stroke his ears and hug him. He has a full and happy life, and hangs out on the farm with Lulu and Fanny. I tell him all the time that Platero would be jealous, as Simon has two girlfriends.
Just before Christmas, I read him the story of Platero and his girlfriend, and he seems to love it just as much.