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UF/IFAS donkeys provide unique learning experience for animal sciences students

On any day throughout the spring semester, Lexi Vander can be found at the UF/IFAS Sheep Unit, next to the animal nutrition laboratory. However, she is not there because of the sheep; she is there to work with Wilma, one of the two resident donkeys at the sheep unit.

Vander, a 21-year-old business major, is one of the eight students enrolled in Special Problems in Animal Science: Donkey Health Management and Behavior. In this course, Vander takes care of Wilma and Pebbles while learning about their behavioral traits and developing plans to improve their quality of life.

About three years ago, the animal sciences department inherited Wilma, Pebbles, and Emily, from a long-time UF/IFAS employee when she died. Associate professors Samantha Brooks and Carissa Wickens quickly learned that the donkeys were not comfortable interacting with or being cared for by humans.

“When they came here, they didn’t know how to interact with humans, so this provided a great opportunity,” Brooks said. “We’ve got students who needed to learn how to interact with unique and exotic livestock, and the donkeys themselves needed some education and learning how to do things like wear a halter, stand still for their annual vaccinations, and tolerate having their hooves handled.”

Emily died in fall 2023 due to a metabolic disease, but Wilma and Pebbles are still learning to be cared for and becoming more comfortable at the sheep unit every day.

Much of the work that goes into caring for and training the donkeys comes directly from the students in the course. Vander has learned a lot about recognizing Wilma’s behavior and how to care for her on any given day in the two months since spring semester began.

“You get to know their moods, so when you come in, you can recognize if they are in a bad mood,” Vander said. “It’s just interesting getting to know (Wilma).”

Wilma (front) and Pebbles stand side by side in their pens. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

In addition to being a source of hands-on education for students, Wilma and Pebbles have become an essential functional aspect of the sheep unit.

“In the spring when we are lambing out our herd of ewes here, those lambs are vulnerable to predation,” Brooks said. “Donkeys are unique among equids in that they can be very territorial and are excellent guard animals. We have not lost a lamb since the donkeys have been integrated into the sheep flock.”

Although they are more comfortable and adjusted than when they first arrived, there are still challenges with taking care of Wilma and Pebbles. One of those, according to Wickens, relates to the Florida climate.

“Donkeys have come from more of an arid, desert environment,” Wickens said, “so keeping their haircoat healthy, and making sure that they’re not having issues with the humidity or bug bites can be a challenge. Especially in the case with Wilma and Pebbles because they hadn’t had a lot of handling.”

Rachel Rogus, a 21-year-old animal sciences major, is another one of the students who works with Wilma. One of the ways she trains Wilma is with a clicker system that acts as a form as positive reinforcement when she listens to direction.

“We try to click, and then give her a treat,” Rogus said, “so she understands why she gets a treat, instead of just doing something and waiting.”

Melissa Hernandez, 21, brushes Pebbles’ fur during her shift. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

The experience that Brooks and Wickens are providing for animal science students is unique and allows them to expand their areas of expertise in the field of animal sciences. Melissa Hernandez, a 21-year-old integrated animal sciences major who works with Pebbles, said she has loved this experience and what she has learned.

“[Pebbles] has a unique personality, in the best way possible,” Hernandez said. “Her accomplishments are one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced here at UF and how she’s grown and how she’s come to trust me in such a short amount of time.”

Wickens encouraged passersby to visit Wilma and Pebbles if they are interested. If you do wish to visit Wilma and Pebbles, Wickens asks that you avoid bringing treats that are high in sugar and starch.

“We have folks that just come up to the fence and say hello to the donkeys all the time,” Wickens said. “They do like food and look for treats, so just watch your hands and fingers.”

Wilma eats a treat while training with Rachel Rogus, 21, who holds a rope. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
Wilma eats a treat while training with Rachel Rogus, 21, who holds a rope. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

Ryan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing