A Case for Dead Mules in Southern Literature




My very first published piece was titled, “Life Lessons I Learned from an Ass…” It was published in a little known magazine called, ‘Miniature Donkey Talk’. I made $50.00. I was thrilled. You see, I just wanted to get published…anywhere. And, so I did. I have yet to meet one soul who has ever read that piece.

Not all was lost, I learned a great deal about the species Equus Africanus Asinus from Juliette, a miniature Sicilian Donkey that I wrote about. Juliette showed up one Sunday afternoon with a horseshoe shaped cut on her face and muzzle. Because of her size, her owner took her to a small animal vet who took one look at her laceration and decided to staple it back into place and get her the heck out of his clinic.

Reluctantly, I agreed to go in with Matt to be a second set of hands. Her owner reported that her staples were falling apart. I was dreading the call until the moment he opened the trailer ramp. Standing stoically in the middle of the stall, was a three foot tall creature with at least two-thirds of the flesh of her muzzle hanging down with putrid smells radiating from the yellow-ish green pus that found its way out of the remaining stapled skin.

“Oh, this can’t be that hard.” I said.

Matt stood there staring. He walked from one side of the trailer to the other, sizing up the situation. “I don’t know. This won’t be an easy fix.” He said.

Oh, for heaven’s sake, I thought, he could pick her up and move her into the clinic himself if he had to. How tough can this be? Since her wound prohibited the use of a halter, we got three rolling stools and I sat with my arms around her neck, her owner sat close behind, circling her barrel while Matt worked on her face and muzzle.

I hate it when Matt is right. But, he was so very right. Long story short, these are the things that I learned that day: Donkeys don’t get excited like horses do, the things that they want to happen, are the things that will come to fruition, no matter what the manpower to donkey-power ratio is; no matter how much sedation they have received and there isn’t a blessed thing that you can do about it.

Matt got the cut cleaned and sutured…finally. When she left the clinic, three adults left limping and sore. She was as right as rain. I was astounded and a little impressed.

My second published piece hangs proudly framed on the wall in my husband’s equine veterinary clinic. One of my husband’s classmates read it and actually brought it to dinner one night for me to sign. And, the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners sent my husband a note saying, “I enjoyed your news article in the Veterinary Practice News. Great to see nice stories about good AAEP members.” I was so proud because finally, I have something to show for my passion.

That story is about Donkey Boy, also a miniature Sicilian donkey, who spent close to a month in the clinic, exposing me yet again to this fascinating species. Since he was hospitalized for close to a month, I worked very hard on building a relationship with him.

Donkey boy came to us via a broken pelvis, which he sustained during a fight over a woman; at least that is our suspicion since there were mares and Jennies in season on each side of his pasture. His opponent, Valentino was a fifteen hand, eleven hundred pound Spotted Saddle Horse. Donkey Boy was maybe thirty inches tall and weighed in at two-hundred fifty to three hundred pounds, dripping wet. He did not seem to know this bit of information but if he did, then he didn’t see it as a problem.

Donkey Boy’s visit with us was due to the fact that the inflammation from his fracture, prevented him from passing manure. It was a big problem. His treatment consisted of high enemas, passing a nasal-gastric (NG) tube and giving mineral oil, electrolytes and water; essentially attacking the problem from both ends.

This would work for a day or two until he would find himself back in the same shape all over again. He was miserable. When it had been a day or two between bowel movements, he looked as though you could prick his abdomen with a pin and he would float up, high into the sky like a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

He hated us. He saw us coming and would slink to the back corner of the stall, dragging his rear end along, blending into the woodwork, the best he knew how. When caught, I could almost hear the cuss words forming in his little brays. I felt so bad for him. He didn’t want to hear my soothing words. He told me in no uncertain terms, that my talk was cheap.

One day, a salesman showed up with a therapeutic laser. My husband was skeptical. But, Donkey Boy was there. He was miserable. What did he have to lose? The salesman asked about Donkey’s problem and then said that since laser reduces inflammation, she would hit certain pressure points on his body with the laser and that he would get antsy, move about the stall, pee, and then poop.

Donkey hadn’t pooped in days. So Matt and I looked at one another with a ‘yeah, right’ look on our faces. The salesman knew exactly what we were thinking. “Just wait and see.” She said, smiling.

“If that donkey poops, I’m buying.” Matt said.

The salesman started the treatment and Donkey, who must have received some sort of commission from the company, just as predicted, got antsy, peed, and then pooped, not once or twice but many times.

Yes, he bought the thing.

It was a great story. I had to write about it. And, the company still uses that article to this day to promote their product.

Like Horses, donkeys are a species in the Equidae family. When you cross a female horse (mare) with a male donkey (Jack), you get a hybrid animal known as a mule.

Charles Darwin once wrote: “The mule always appears to me a most surprising animal. A hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature.”

While donkeys and mules are a small percentage of my husband’s equine practice, their unique qualities make it hard for me not to respect and admire them. By juxtaposing the mule to the bigger and more beautiful, yet fragile Equus Caballus (Horse), I can see how the mule might be the smart nerd to the horse’s big man on campus appeal.

One afternoon, we had a cancellation. Matt asked me to call the next farm call (appointment), which was to vaccinate four mules and three horses, and ask the owner if he could come early.

“Be sure that she has them tied to the trees.” He said.

“What?” I asked.

That didn’t sound very safe or humane and certainly not politically correct.

“Just ask her.” He said.

“I will not.” I said.

“I’m serious.” He said. Matt got on the phone, called the owner and sure enough he asked, “Will you have time to tie them to the trees before I get there?”

I was mortified. Surely he had violated some sort of code of ethics.

When he got back, he reported that when he had finished, the owner untied every horse and mule, with Diablo, the first mule that he vaccinated last.   Diablo trotted in a wide circle around to just within striking distance of my husband. He kicked with both back feet, just missing him, but letting him know just what he felt about being vaccinated.

I soon learned that it required the strength of a tree, deeply rooted with age to hold a mule.

As I continued to write, I ran across an article written by an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill named Jerry Leath Mills. His piece is titled: “Equine Gothic: The Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature of the Twentieth Century.”

It was a thought provoking piece that got me to thinking about my own odd writing topics. Mills theorizes what it is that makes southern literature southern. The answer can be had by boiling it down to one simple question. The question is: Does it have a dead mule in it?

He doesn’t just theorize, he cites specific works, with all kinds of authors in various sections of the south and lists eighteen different types of mule deaths. And, while it was written as a critical paper might be written, it leaves the reader a lot to ponder.

In the South, we seem to be fascinated by mules. But, why is it so important to record their deaths? Why did so many writers make a point to record their demise? I will theorize, after just a few cases at my husband’s clinic, that I may have a possible answer.

According to the American Mule Museum, in 1808, there were approximately 855,000 mules in the United States, with an estimated value of sixty-six million dollars. And, by 1840, a quality jack used for mule breeding could fetch close to five thousand dollars in my home state of Kentucky. Apparently, up north, they turned their noses up at mules. They used horses and oxen on their farms. Southerners mainly used mules.

Could it be that these southern writers had a little exposure with these hybrid animals first hand? Maybe they still harbored a little resentment towards them. And, maybe just maybe that used what they had to get even. I think this is one instance where the pen is mightier than the sword.

And, why would I as a new writer, make my first two stories about donkeys? I guess these are all questions for greater literary minds to consider. I had written about donkeys, but did I have a story with a dead mule in me? I racked my brain, trying to come up with one experience that I have had with an actual dead mule and then, it came to me as clear as day.

Matt had been treating a very sick mule that was not improving. His owners decided to euthanize him.   Matt wanted him taken to our state lab for a necropsy to rule out rabies and botulism. The only problem was that they didn’t have a way to transport him.

Somehow, I was volunteered to transport the dead mule. The vet truck has a unit in its bed that keeps drugs and equipment in it, so we were trying to find a truck to borrow with an empty bed to haul the dead mule the thirty miles to the state lab just south of Nashville. Our young employee, Becky, offered for me to borrow her dad’s old Chevy truck. It was a big red dually. What she didn’t mention, at least not until she got to the clinic, is that it might die on you if you don’t keep giving it gas.

As I look back, I realize that there are times when I don’t think things through. And, this might be one of those times. In my mind, I was thinking about the service that I was providing to public health. It feels good to help others.

But, once I got in that big truck, that I could barely see over the steering wheel of and realized how loud it was, especially when the idling seemed out of time and I panicked about it dying, goosing it with a flood of diesel fuel, forcing plumes of black smoke to cough out of the back tailpipe as I raced down five lanes of interstate sixty-five with the drivers of little hybrids looking on shaking their disapproving heads while taller SUVs and trucks who could see my cargo appearing to be in peaceful slumber because as the wind hit at just the right angle, his tail would appear to be swatting flies, I felt that it was only calling attention to the redneck driving through metropolitan Nashville with a dead mule in bed of her truck, it was then that I knew that I needed to learn to think before I act.

This was not the picture that I ever could have had in mind, when people mentioned that I was going to be the vet’s wife. Nope. This was not the one.

I think that I will take a lesson from my asinine friends. I’m not going to get excited. I’m not even going to see it as a problem. Maybe I will look on the bright side and hope that this gives me a sideways entrance into the category of southern writers. And, if that is the case, then I am honored.




About The Author

Jean Heaton

I am a daughter, sister, aunt, mother and probably most notoriously, ‘the Vet’s wife’.


  1. ML B | 26th Jan 16

    I think you are right about the south and mules..up by Detroit, they never come up in conversation!

    You are inspiring me. I’m going to work on a website, and write about different topics.
    much love,

  2. Jean Heaton | 26th Jan 16

    Thanks! You should. I love to read the things you write!!

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *