Above: A donkey basketball game in action. Photo by Nick Knouse, via Flickr.
A public school in the Catskills is coming under fire for hosting a fundraiser featuring basketball players riding on donkeys.
Margaretville Central School's plans for a "donkeyball" fundraiser on April 9 are being targeted by a group of local protestors who argue that the pastime is cruel to the donkeys.
Donkey basketball has a long history in rural areas, including the Catskills, where residents remember it being played in school gyms decades ago. Donkeyball, as it's known, fits into a pantheon of animal-oriented rural fundraisers that also includes "cow plop bingo" and pig-chasing. According to the New York Times, the oldest donkeyball company has been in operation since the 1930s.
Donkeyball involves inviting donkeys wearing special rubber booties into a school gym, where local basketball players and perhaps a school administrator or two ride them while attempting to play basketball. The chance to see an athlete sail over a donkey's head draws big crowds.
Over five hundred people attended a donkeyball tournament last year in another Catskills school, Cobleskill-Richmondville High School, according to the Schoharie News. (The donkeys are scheduled to return there this month for another game.)
The success of Cobleskill's event gave a staff member in Margaretville the idea to host a donkey basketball fundraiser to benefit Margareville's National Honor Society.
But the animal-rights group PETA is not a fan of donkey basketball, and neither are some residents in Delaware County, where Margaretville Central School is located. When Phyllis Horowitz, a local animal lover, caught wind of the school's fundraiser, she organized a letter-writing campaign to protest the idea.
Calling donkey basketball games "abusive," Horowitz's letter draws a connection to last week's news that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is retiring its herd of circus elephants.
"The current plan fares poorly when juxtaposed with a milestone ironically also announced this week –- the Ringling Bros. Circus decision to stop using elephants in their shows," the letter says. "Are we Ringling Bros. or is it Sea World?"
"A group of local citizens have offered to help put together an alternative activity for the students, and in the past two days Christopher Durham has personally raised over $550 for the Honor Society, should they agree to the change," Horowitz wrote in an email to dozens of people.
Horowitz's campaign is gathering support. On Monday, March 9, Margaretville Central School received a blast of emails and calls protesting the fundraiser, according to John Riedl, Margaretville's interim superintendent.
Nicole Bomer, a Denver resident, was one of the callers. She finds the concept of donkey basketball disturbing.
"You've got to find another way to make a living, and not at the expense of animals," she said.
Donkey basketball businesses say that the events are harmless, the animals are well-cared for and that accusations of animal cruelty are wildly exaggerated.
"No abuse of our animals is tolerated at anytime whatsoever," writes Jessica Cordell, the owner of a donkey basketball company called Dairyland Donkeyball, in an article called "The Truth About PETA and Donkey Basketball." "If someone did abuse our animals in any way, they would immediately be removed from the show."
Riedl said that the school had not yet made a decision whether to cancel Margaretville's donkey basketball tournament, and that he appreciated both sides of what he called an "important" issue.
"I understand that it’s a real and sincere position, and that they feel very strongly about an issue they believe in," he said. "There are people who feel the same way on the other side. I called the owner [of the donkeyball business], and he said, 'They’re my pets, and I don’t let anyone mistreat my pets.'"
"I think people need to know that we’re not careless and flip about this," Riedl said. "I’m taking all the issues into consideration, and we’ll make a decision here based on what’s best for the community and our school."
The owner of Green Mountain Donkeyball, which is scheduled to run Margaretville's event, did not return a call for comment.