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Endangered Equines | Spring 2011 Out Here Magazine

Deb Kidwell "became addicted" to Mammoth Jackstocks after meeting her first one at a county horse show. The large donkeys are in danger of extinction.

Deb Kidwell is devoted to keeping the American Mammoth Jackstock breed alive

By Dick Matthews
Photography by Chris Mackler

At Lake Nowhere Mule and Donkey Farm, owner Deb Kidwell loves each and every animal, but there's one breed in particular that's captured her heart — because it needs her most.

Deb has become a dedicated breeder of the American Mammoth Jackstock donkey, which is among the most endangered livestock, says the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which works to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock.

Deb, of Martin, TN, met her first mules and Mammoth Jackstock at a county horse show and, she says, "became addicted."

The conservancy lists the American Jackstock, or AMJ, as "threatened" with the breed dropping from an estimated 5 million animals in 1920 to about 2,000 animals remaining worldwide.

The AMJ is a large breed of donkey that stands at least 14.2 hands high — a hand being 4 inches — and was started by George Washington in the 1770s from large donkeys he imported from Spain.

The Jackstock jack, when mated with a female horse, produces a mule. Mules, however, are sterile because the number of chromosomes from the two parents don't match. So, the only way to get a mule is to mate a male donkey with a female horse.

Mules intended for riding or light work are products of a jack and a saddle mare, while draft mules result from breeding the AMJ with, say, a Clydesdale or Belgian.

But the growth of farm mechanization spelled trouble for Mammoth Jackstock. "Tractor use equaled mule decline," Deb says. "No need for mules, no need for jacks to make mules."

Yet despite the decline in need, Deb is passionate about the Jackstock. "The AMJ is an outstanding driving and riding animal and my purpose for breeding them is to preserve this important American heritage breed and to promote their use as loving, sweet riding animals so their use isn't just for making mules," she says.

In a happy twist, mules are slowly becoming more popular, though not just as draft animals. Like their Jackstock sires, mules make excellent riding animals and their intelligence is appealing. Despite an undeserved reputation for stubbornness, which really is just intelligent caution, Deb says, their gentle dispositions and general good nature make them loveable equine companions.

Jennifer Kendall, of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, underscores the importance of what Deb does.

"When we lose a genetic strain like the American Mammoth Jackstock, it's gone forever," she says, "and that means we've lost any contribution that animal's genes might have made to future biological diversity."

But to Deb Kidwell, there are other reasons as well.

"These jacks and jennets (female donkeys) and the mules jacks produce are wonderfully intelligent animals. I just fell in love with them and wanted to help preserve the breed," she says.

"Donkeys have precious personalities," she adds. "They're like old souls."

Dick Matthews is a Maine writer.