Tails of Heroism
Poppy And Buttermilk—An Amazing Story of Heroism
(as witnessed by Dr. Art and Joan,  Sept. 2, 2010)- Updated 4/2019

Poppy wasn’t a racing donkey.  She’d proven to us year after year that her
competitive streak was obliterated by her large liver-colored spots, and winning the
annual Paradise Donkey Derby ranked low on her bucket list.  Despite our entering
her in that race every year for the past 10 years, since the very first one on the
anniversary of her birth on Gold Nugget Days weekend 2001, she had reluctantly
made the trek from deep in the Feather River Canyon, up the winding dirt road for
the 7 miles to the obstacle course at the end in Old Magalia, only to firmly set her
parking brake at one or another of the obstacles between her and the finish line,
thereby frustrating all of the handful of donkey drovers that attempted to coax her
over that line year after year.
That annual event stood in contrast to her otherwise low-stress, idyllic lifestyle,
where her days were spent roaming the green pastures of our Paradise farm, grazing
with her loosely-knit group of goats, sheep, and Rocco the pig, with whom she
shared manure-spreading duties.  However, after what happened in the pre-dawn
darkness of one early September night, we came to see her very differently.

Joan and I always slept outside in the summer, on a small deck overlooking our
backyard.  The night started out no differently than others—a star-studded sky and a
pesky waning moon that was still so bright in the early hours that it had startled us
awake for the past week or so.  That night, however, it wasn’t the moon, but a
desperate cry from one of our animals in the direction of the barn, that brought us
upright in our bed.  Two more equally distressing cries from what sounded like
Rocco being skinned alive, and I had grabbed my headlamp and, still in a dream-
induced fog, clumsily jumped the pasture fence between us and the barn.  I
instantly realized I’d landed in one of the spots Poppy chose to do her daily
constitutional, and immediately lost my footing in the slippery dung pile before
stumbling frantically in the direction of the cries.
     The other 8 goats that comprised our motley herd at that time were grouped in
a tight cluster near the barn, and their multiple pairs of eyes reflected back at me
like tiny headlamps of their own before darting back toward what they were
witnessing.  I followed their gaze to reveal in my light beam a mountain lion
holding fast to the nose and upper jaw of our favorite goat, Buttermilk, a 12-year old
Boer-cross with a personality befitting her name.  She was still very much alive, eyes
bulging and mouth agape in terror, intermittent screams like the ones we’d heard
emanating from her as she hung onto the edge of a small pond from which the big
cat was trying to extricate her.  Buttermilk, at 130 lbs., was somewhat larger than the
lion, and her hindquarters were mired in the muck of the pond, while her forelegs
were braced solidly against the upsloping bank.  The cat was on his hindlegs with
his forepaws on either side of the goat’s neck, pulling with all the power of his
massive hindlegs.  Clearly the struggle was at a stalemate, and my yelling and arm
waving was not shifting the balance in the slightest.  As I considered my vanishingly
short list of options, into the light of my headlamp emerged Poppy, charging the
attacker and bellowing with all the might of her 600 lbs.  She got within inches of
his face, and blasted him with such a cacophony of extreme donkey honking noises
that I imagined our entire rural neighborhood would be awakened and summoning
the police.  The cat, however, failed to respond except to bare down harder, so
Poppy shifted into overdrive, circling the beast with a tight, rocking-horse cadence,
kicking with front and rear hooves repeatedly, all the while keeping up her war-
whoop, until finally the lion let loose and considered retreat the better option.  He
raced off in the direction away from me, much to my  heartfelt relief, and, after
hesitating to look back for a breathless moment, he effortlessly leaped over the 6-
foot fence and was gone into the night forest.  Poppy had won!  
Poppy immediately ran over to my side, breathlessly blowing steam from her nostrils
and quivering with  adrenaline.  I put my arms around her neck (which would have
been virtually impossible at any other time due to her general aversion to being
handled), and I reassured her that she had just done an incredible thing!  I quickly
scanned back to the spot of the attack, and Buttermilk had disappeared as well.  
After some searching, we discovered her standing, shaking and bleeding, by the
small creek which runs through the lower end of our property, the farthest spot from
where the lion had escaped.  My initial assessment of her was that her nose
appeared to have been torn off.  Blood had coagulated so thickly over her muzzle
that it wasn’t clear how much of her face was left intact, but she was on her feet,
and we were able to lead her through the darkness to the barn where we could tend
to her wounds.  In the light of the barn and after removing her mask of blood, we
could see that she was still remarkably in one piece, and though she had multiple
deep lacerations and punctures over her face and neck, none appeared to be
lethal.  Amazingly, all of her parts were still where they were supposed to be.  We
cleaned her wounds and made her comfortable as best we could before closing her
in with the chickens for the last couple of hours before dawn.  The possibility of
sleep for us, and no doubt for her, was remote, but it was still only 4:00 am when we
returned to bed to await the first light of morning, not sure whether we had really
witnessed what we had, or whether the beating doled out by our courageous little
donkey had convinced the big cat to seek other pastures for the remainder of the
night.

We were relieved to find Buttermilk still alive the next morning, and she continued
to improve each day as her wounds slowly healed.  She and Poppy displayed  a
new found vitality in their relationship, and Poppy waited nickering at the gate each
day when Buttermilk came home from the clinic with her wounds freshly treated.  
Fortunately, all the critters seemed to be much more compliant about going into
the barn at night after that harrowing experience.  And Poppy and Buttermilk
always, after that night, stood side by side at the feedbunk, with no balking over who
had access to the hay.  They seemed to be happy just to have a best friend to share
with.



Chapter 2—The Miracle Continues  (April, 2019)
After the mountain lion attack, Poppy seemed to have a new-found vigor, and she
would frequently break into a spontaneous race around the pasture, bucking and
honking for no apparent reason, and creating no end of consternation for the other
animals in her herd.  The mountain lion never returned, and whether her antics
were initiated by her sensing its’ proximity, or just by the recollection of the events
of that fateful night, she seemed to be much more vigilant about responding to the
comings and goings of the people and animals that visited our small farm.  She
also became more aggressive in her efforts at the annual Donkey Derby, and each
year came closer to finishing in the top 3.  By 2016, her most persistent and
successful drover, Henry, had gained her confidence and focused her new
exuberance enough for the man-and-donkey team to actually emerge victorious in
that battle of donkey wills (or more accurately, “won’ts”).  She marched unhesitantly
through the obstacles at the end of the 7 mile race, passing her rivals with a flip of
her tail, as if motivated by the knowledge that she had faced challenges way
beyond the scope of a man-made tunnel or small pool of water.  And her
domination continued in the Derby each successive year, garnering her the top
donkey designation for 2017 and 2018.  She had become legendary again!
2018 became legendary as well.  The morning of November 8, I had let the
animals out of the barn into our 4 acres of pasture as usual at 6: 00 am as part of my
routine in preparation for heading to work at 7:15.  Our menagerie at this point held
steady at 11 animals:  9 goats, including 1 precocious Boer buck that I’d borrowed
from a friend for the past month to breed our breedable does (excluding Buttermilk
of course, who at 22 years of age had had multiple unfruitful opportunities to breed
in the 20 years we’d had her).  The rest of the line-up was a new pig named Kevin
Bacon, and the herd leader, Poppy.  I departed for our clinic, and as staff members
began arriving around 7:30, I learned that a fire had been reported about 20 miles
from Paradise in the Feather River Canyon.  I stepped outside briefly to see smoke
billowing by overhead as if from a much closer source, and as I re-entered the
clinic, the phone began ringing with evacuation warnings.  I scurried to clear the
clinic of early morning arrivals with their pets, and hopped into my car to make my
way across town to our home on the east side of the ridge, the side nearest the
reported source of the fire.  The evacuation warnings had clearly been taken
seriously, as the road was already choked with traffic heading in a westerly
direction, away from the flames which I could now see in the distance just beyond
our neighborhood.  The wind was howling by this time, and pieces of smoldering
bark and embers were raining out of the sky.  I backed my truck up to the old horse
trailer in our driveway, and ran in to the house to help Joan and our son Jason, who
happened to be working in the area, had seen the fire coming, and had raced over
to help us get out.  In the few minutes it took us to load up the 3 dogs and 2 cats in
the car, and a small file cabinet containing our most important records, the fire was
surrounding our house.  There was no time to round up our pasture animals, and we
could only hope and pray that they would somehow find shelter in the still lush area
through which the creek ran at the lower end of our property.  The 4 ½ hour exodus
through multiple burning neighborhoods of our little gridlocked town, and the giant
mushroom cloud extending high into the atmosphere that was visible over Paradise
when we finally reached nearby Chico, dashed our hopes that our animals could
have possibly survived.  
The largest wildfire in California history dominated the news for the next several
weeks, and the town of Paradise was locked down to anyone other than firefighters
and first responders for many days.  However, Henry, our friend and drover, was able
to gain access as a CalFire affiliate, and he called me the next day to say he had
driven through our decimated neighborhood and seen Poppy, Buttermilk, Kevin,
and one other goat, Louie, who appeared badly burned, out in our blackened
pasture.  I was able to convince a friend who was heading up the animal rescue
effort to give me a pass to get back to our property to bring the survivors out.  My
heart sank as we drove onto our nearly unrecognizable property to find our little
donkey with Buttermilk once again by her side, covered with soot and singed but
unburned.  Kevin and Louie were nearby, both having received facial burns, Louie
severely.  We loaded the animals and transported them to a friend’s farm in the
Valley, and arranged to get Louie to UC Davis, where treatment for fire victims was
being provided at no charge.  He remained there for 3 weeks, receiving intensive
burn care and support before coming back to his foster farm to be re-united with his
diminutive herd of fire survivors.  
For the next five months, our friends Chris and Kirk provided unparalleled care to
our critters, who shared barn space with a beautiful, gentle horse named Doc, who
himself welcomed all but Kevin with warm affection.  He especially loved Poppy,
who admiringly followed him all over the pasture, and he seemed completely at
ease with Buttermilk and Louie. On the other hand, Doc found Kevin to be, frankly,
loathsome, but they worked out an arrangement whereby Kevin gave wide berth to
Doc and was able to ramp up his running speed beyond what we had imagined
possible in order to maintain his distance from Doc’s thunderous hoofs.  As one of
the most beautiful springs on record hit it’s most intense glory around April 1, I
received a mid-day phone call from Chris while I was at work, her voice sounding
strangely concerned but elated.  “You might want to sit down for this,” she began.  “I
have been noticing Buttermilk has been particularly listless the last couple of days,
barely leaving the barn, and I was getting increasingly worried that she may be in
trouble.  Well, I just walked out to the pasture to check on her a few minutes ago,
and she has twin baby goats standing beside her. “
Needless to say, I was dumbfounded.  My mind raced to try to understand where 2
baby goats could have come from.  Surely not from Buttermilk, who at 22 was the
goat equivalent of 100 human years old.  This had to be a hoax, a prank—no,
actually another Buttermilk miracle!  A goat’s gestation is 5 months, so somehow
she had managed to get successfully bred during the last week before the fire.   We
had noticed her gaining weight in recent weeks, but she was on lush green pasture,
and Chris generously fed her extra grain to help with her fire recovery.  I had
actually chastised Chris at one point for overfeeding her, pregnancy being the last
thing I would have considered as an explanation for her expanding girth.  
Poppy now presides over a new herd, with Buttermilk providing her with two brand
new companions and a bright future ahead.  The 1st Annual Post-Fire Paradise
Donkey Derby will be happening in the next couple of weeks, and Poppy is as fired
up as ever to thrill the crowd, meager though it may be in light of the still
decimated condition of our once-thriving foothill community.  The Paradise
determination to survive and rejuvenate is strong.  Examples of courage,
compassion, and miracles minor and major abound in the wake of a devastating
catastrophe.
We will recover!