Beast of Burden
“Donkeys first came to Oah‘u as pack animals in 1825,” tells Dr. Brady Bergin, a Waimea based veterinarian who has spearheaded efforts with the Hawai`i Humane Society in recent years to care for and find adoptive homes for the Waikoloa herd. “A few ended up on the Big Island, working the higher elevation coffee farms on the slopes of Hualālai. They’re surefooted and hearty animals, and they can pack more per pound than horses.” The donkeys proved to be invaluable for the coffee farmers for more than 100 years, packing loads of coffee cherries from the rugged mountainside fields down to the drying and roasting facilities around Kona, and from there to the coast where the beans would be shipped to market.
After delivering their payload, the donkeys would be loaded with salt, fish, and other supplies, and the Nightingales would dutifully head back uphill to the farm, sometimes making the round trip by themselves, so familiar were they with the trails and task at hand.
After World War II, with more roads in place and a surplus of Army jeeps available, the donkeys were slowly phased out. According to a chapter on the Waikoloa Nightingales in Dr. Bergin’s forthcoming book, “The Hawaiian Horse” (with Dr. Billy Bergin), “Over the years, many of these working donkeys were released into the wilderness to fend for themselves, which they were more than capable of doing in the lush tropical environment (near Kona).”
How did the donkeys end up nearly 45 miles away in the Waikoloa area?
In 1974, Bergin tells, 30 donkeys were purchased from Hu‘ehu‘e Ranch by the Waikoloa Development Company for the purpose of developing a sort of Western ambiance for this newly established community.
“This new environment suited the donkeys very well. The dry, rocky terrain scattered with kiawe (algaroba) trees and copious amounts of fountain grass provided the most ideal conditions and their most natural habitat. The population steadily grew, and their grazing migration expanded over thousands of acres, well beyond the Waikoloa Village Association land and into neighboring ranches such as Parker Ranch. Without proper management, it wasn’t long before the population was deemed out of control.”
As resort development along the Kohala Coast expanded in these years, and with the opening of Queen Ka‘ahamanu Highway, the donkeys were cut off from their traditional watering holes near the coast. New homes and golf courses were being built too, and the by-now 600 or so free-ranging donkeys came to be regarded as more and more of a nuisance.