A Student, A Donkey And The Healing Power Of The Human-Animal Bond

Download Audio
Sherman the Donkey and Chris McDougall (Matt Roth for The New York Times)
Sherman the Donkey and Chris McDougall. (Matt Roth)

This story was re-broadcast on September 12, 2020 as part of The Best Of Only A Game. 

It was second semester of his sophomore year at Penn State, and Zeke Cook was in trouble. He was home from school — not by choice.

"I decided that it would probably in my best interest to try to, you know, add exercise to my life," Zeke says. "So I started running. And I was reading 'Born to Run' for some form of inspiration."

"Born to Run" is Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestselling book that fueled the barefoot running craze. And Chris McDougall just so happens to be Zeke's neighbor and old family friend.

Zeke's mom, Andrea, left a message explaining that Zeke was spending a semester away from school and asked if Chris would be willing to take Zeke for a run.

"And you have to understand what the Cook family's like," Chris says. "They don't rattle. So to get a phone call and hear that Zeke is home from college, suddenly like alarm bells are going off. Like, this does not happen to the Cook family."

Chris is a big believer in movement as medicine. So he figured whatever trouble Zeke was in, running would probably help.

'Would You Tell Him? No Way'

But before talking to Zeke, Chris needed to get Andrea on the phone for some intel.

"So I picked up the phone and call," Chris recalls. "I thought I was calling her cell phone number and actually got the home number."

Zeke answered the phone.

Zeke meets Sherman. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)
Zeke meets Sherman. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)

"I was like, 'Hey, man, I was interested in going for run. I'm home from school,' " Zeke says. "And Chris kind of said, 'Yeah, we should do a run tomorrow. Are you available tomorrow?' And he's like, 'Yeah, but...' And he's like, 'I'll tell you tomorrow.' "

"So you invite him for a run, but you don't tell him there's going to be a donkey involved?" I ask Chris.

"Would you tell him?" Chris says. "No way."

The donkey’s name is Sherman.

"What advice did you give him when you handed him Sherman's lead?" I ask.

" 'Stay out of the line of fire, buddy,' " Chris jokes. "No, I think I downplayed it. I said, 'Let's just go out and have some fun. Watch those back hooves. That's their defense mechanism is to kick. And let's just see what happens.' "

Chris still didn’t know what was going on with Zeke, but the run that day wasn’t only about taking care of Zeke. It was also about taking care of Sherman.

'We've Never Seen This Before'

Sherman came to live with Chris and his family in the fall of 2015.

"It was fully my daughter Sophie's fault," Chris says. "She was 9 years old, and I made the crucial mistake of asking her what she wanted for her birthday. And the answer was 'a donkey.' "

The McDougalls live in Lancaster County, Penn. — Amish country. And, at just that moment, another neighbor was trying to rescue a donkey from a hoarder.

"We first saw him locked in his stall in the darkness, so we knew he was in bad shape," Chris recalls. "But we didn't realize how bad it was until the next day, when our neighbor was able to pry this donkey away from the hoarder, bring him to our home, and we saw it in daylight for the first time."

The donkey’s hooves were so overgrown and deformed, he couldn’t walk.

"And if donkeys can't walk, they can't survive," Chris says. "They need to move in order to digest their food and pass it through their digestive tract."

Chris called Tanya, a local vet assistant, and her husband Scott, an amateur farrier — that’s someone who takes care of an animal’s hooves.

"And I'm in a state of panic," Chris says. "Like, 'I have my daughter's 10th birthday gift, which is about to die an excruciating death in front of her eyes. Can you help?' And their answer is, 'Don't worry about it. Donkeys are tough. We've seen it all. No problem.' They come over the next day. They take a look at this donkey, and they go, 'We've never seen this before.' "

Sherman was in bad shape when he first came to live with the McDougalls. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)
Sherman was in bad shape when he first came to live with the McDougalls. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)

Scott used a hacksaw to cut through the donkey’s hooves and then clipped and filed them into shape. When it was all over, the donkey should have walked away. But he didn’t.

"He was standing there glassy-eyed, immobile, shell-shocked," Chris recalls. "And Scott's looking at him saying, 'You know, it may be too late. If he doesn't move, he's going to die. It might be better to put him down right now.' "

But Scott’s wife, Tanya, wasn’t ready to give up.

"Tanya blazed in," Chris says. "She was just like a white ball of avenging thunder. She was so furious at what this hoarder had done."

Tanya injected the donkey — by this point, Chris’s daughter had named him Sherman — with antibiotics and painkillers, and started shearing off the fur that had become matted with filth. As she worked, she was already looking beyond the current problem to the next one.

"She just kind of turned to me with those clippers in my face and said, 'Now look, you're not just going to drop him out in a field. He's feeling despair. He's been abandoned. You gotta give him a job. He's got to have a reason to open his eyes and look forward to something,' " Chris says.

The 'Second Chance'

"The only thing I could think of is like, 'I'm not like a prospector. Like what? I don't have a job for a donkey,' " Chris says. "But 10 years earlier, I had been to Colorado to cover a story for the World Championship Pack Burro Race."

Yep, the World Championship Pack Burro Race. It’s held every July in Fairplay, Colorado. Participants run, alongside donkeys, up and over a mountain. The “short” course is 15 miles.

"I'm scanning desperately," Chris says. "Job, job, job. 'Oh, hey. Pack burro race!' "

Chris was sure Tanya would think this was a terrible idea.

"And she kinda looked at me," he recalls. "She's like, 'OK, all right. I see this, but it's gonna be — step one is, can this creature even put a foot on a hard surface?' "

By the next morning, Sherman had made a friend: a goat named Lawrence. Wherever Lawrence went, Sherman followed. He was finally moving.

But there was still the question of whether Sherman would willingly step on a hard surface. Donkeys are naturally distrustful, and Sherman had never seen anything outside the hoarder’s small, dark stall. So when Tanya tried to lead Sherman out to the road, he stopped just short of the asphalt. Tanya spent the next 40 minutes locked in a battle of wills, until Sherman finally set one hoof on the road.

Chris's wife, Mika, became the third runner of the three human, three donkey group. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)
Chris's wife, Mika, became the third runner of the three human, three donkey group. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)

"She turns to me, and she goes, 'See that? That's the power of a second chance,' " Chris recalls. "I'm like, 'You're right. We're giving him a second chance.' She's like, 'I'm not talking about him. I'm talking about you. Why do you think he would ever trust a human again? Humans have made his life nothing but miserable. He's giving you a second chance, buddy, and you'd better to live up to it.' "

Chris and Tanya had less than a year to get Sherman in shape for the World Championship Pack Burro Race. But they soon realized that he wouldn’t go anywhere without a friend. So Tanya brought over her big riding donkey, Flower. Tanya would ride Flower. Chris would follow behind, running with Sherman.

Flower was fast, but she was afraid of everything: cows, puddles, the color yellow.

"So we had to triple down and bring in a third donkey," Chris says. "And then my poor wife, Mika, who was not down with any of this plan, suddenly gets recruited to be the third donkey runner."

By this time, it was Thanksgiving. And Tanya was facing trouble at home. She could no longer join Chris and Mika for their daily runs. And, without a third handler, the donkey trio was stalled.

Tapping Into An Ancient Connection

So, when Zeke Cook’s mom called to see if Chris would be willing to take her son for a run, Chris thought he might have found a solution to his problem. But he still didn’t know why Zeke was home. And he knew handling Sherman wouldn’t be easy.

"We're early in the process where, you know, if we could go a quarter mile, that was huge," Chris says. "And it's a quarter mile of him twisting and turning. And it's this endless mind game. That's what I was throwing this poor kid into."

"So when did you finally learn what Zeke was up against?" I ask.

"It was Zeke who told me, and, uh," Chris starts to say.

He pushes back from the microphone and looks away. And for the next 30 seconds, he doesn’t say anything.

"Longest pause in radio history," Chris says. "All right. Yeah, I don't like thinking about it. So, he's the one that told me, and he was very matter of fact about it."

Zeke is still matter of fact about it.

"I had actually been kind of going through a seriously depressive episode in my life, where I had essentially attempted to commit suicide," Zeke says.

Zeke had been hospitalized. He was allowed to return home under the condition that he attend regular therapy sessions and work with doctors to find the right mix of medications.

When Zeke’s mom asked Chris for help, she hadn’t breathed easy in weeks.

"Depression, man. I just hate that word because it's such a misconception of what this thing is," Chris says. "It's not being depressed. It is being stricken by a life-threatening illness. And if it can hit that kid, man, you know — this kid's got everything going for him. So if it's attacking his brain, it can get anybody."

"It's not being depressed. It is being stricken by a life-threatening illness."

Christopher McDougall

Zeke wanted to get back to his friends and to his studies at Penn State. But he knew he wouldn’t be able to until he was no longer a danger to himself.

"It became pretty apparent to me that simply taking a few anti-depressants and not making wholesale lifestyle changes — that would not be enough for me to be healthy at school," Zeke says. "And, so, for me, it was more about kind of trying to rebalance some of my wiring. So exercise was the first step for me. And then, beyond that, it was nutrition. And then, I guess, donkeys."

Because, as it turns out, by handing Zeke Sherman’s lead that day, Chris had tapped into something ancient and often overlooked: the connection between humans and animals.

"I mean, there's a reason why, like, right now, you pet a cat, and it purrs, and you feel really good," Chris says. "It's not because it's cute. It's because, ancestrally, if you had a wild feline, and that creature with far better auditory sense and night vision and sense of smell realizes that there's no danger in the perimeter, that gives you an indication that you can relax now. You bring a dog into a cancer ward, and the requirement for pain medication cuts in half. Anxiety, stress levels drop in half."

An Instant Brotherhood

Sherman and Zeke out for a run. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)
Sherman and Zeke out for a run. (Courtesy Christopher McDougall)

Chris didn’t plan to partner Zeke, the fastest runner and least experienced donkey handler, with the slowest and hardest to handle donkey. But he says Zeke and Sherman chose each other, right from that first run.

"We stopped after a quarter mile. I was asking, 'How's everyone doing?' " Chris says. "And Sherman's just leaning his head against Zeke's leg. They were just brothers at that moment."

Zeke, the kid fighting depression, and Sherman, the donkey with abandonment issues, soon started to realize that they could help each other heal.

"I think that, with depression, it's a malaise that kind of makes it very difficult for you to look beyond the immediate problems," Zeke says. "It's almost like you're in a perpetual state of panic. You feel kind of afraid all the time. You feel trapped, I guess. And so when you're dealing with an animal that has needs that they can't articulate, it gets you outside of your own brain."

Soon, Zeke was showing up every day to get “outside of his own brain” with Sherman.

"I remember, one morning it was cold and wet," Chris recalls. "And I’m like, 'You know what? Let’s just call this. Bag it today.' And we look up, and there's Zeke pulling in the drive like a half an hour early. 'Dude, what are you doing here?' He's like, 'Well, I realized early on that you'd be relying on me for consistency and punctuality.' And I think, you know, that was it.

"He felt that his job was to be like the kind of team captain here. And he was getting the exercise, the animal contact and the sense of need. Like, we needed him."

"It was kind of the rock around which I kind of rebuilt my life," Zeke says.

(Courtesy Christopher McDougall)
(Courtesy Christopher McDougall)

And as Zeke started to feel better, so did Sherman.

"I just had such a vivid memory of seeing Sherman, ears in the air, mane flopping back and forth, whole body just sort of jiggling along — different animal entirely from the animal we brought," Chris says. "The animal we brought was dead-eyed, glassy-eyed, slumped over, head down. And suddenly frisking along like a little show pony in a parade — and Zeke always in contact, like his hip brushing Sherman's side."

"Running with Sherman" by Christopher McDougall
"Running with Sherman" by Christopher McDougall

Four years after coming to live with the McDougalls, Sherman is happy and healthy. He still lives at the McDougalls' farm, but now his running buddies Flower and Matilda live there, too.

Zeke visits Sherman whenever he’s home.

"He, I would say, is more sociable," Zeke says. "He’s much, I'd say, more inherently trusting of people. I think I maybe gave Sherman some sense of peace."'

"And what did Sherman do for you?" I ask.

"I'd say Sherman is a big part of the reason why I was actually able to go back to school and graduate," Zeke answers. "You know, when I got back to school, it was, like, 'I trained with a donkey. I can do this. I can do anything.' "

Zeke Cook is currently taking a gap year between undergrad and grad school. Christopher McDougall’s new book, "Running With Sherman," chronicles the three runner, three donkey team’s attempt at the 2016 World Championship Pack Burro Race.

But that’s a story for another day.


I’m happy to report that Zeke Cook and Sherman the donkey are both happy and healthy. Zeke just began his PhD program at Berkeley — after having also been accepted at Yale, Cornell and Boulder.

Sherman — along with fellow donkeys Matilda and Flower — has moved to a 130 acre farm where, if all goes according to plan, after Covid they will be given new jobs — working at an animal therapy center for people struggling with mental health issues.

This segment aired on November 9, 2019.


Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live