Washington: A donkey in Baghdad is in the centre of a custody battle involving a marine, now back in the US, a sheikh and an Iraqi family that has demanded $30,000 to give him up.
Affectionately called Smoke, the donkey wandered onto a US military base in Baghdad two years ago and won the hearts of the men there. Now, a retired Marine colonel wants to bring Smoke from Iraq to Nebraska to work with the children of soldiers who have been killed or wounded, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
It's unclear who the skinny young donkey originally belonged to, but for the Marine unit that adopted him in 2008, he quickly became part of their family.
"Marines aren't all tough guys with hard hearts - we're suckers for kids and animals," says retired Marine Col. John Folsom, who was commandant of Camp Taquddam in Anbar province when Smoke showed up.
Smoke was handed over to another Marine unit when Fulsom's unit left. When the last of the Marines left Iraq last fall (2010) they gave Smoke to the Army unit replacing them. An Army major immediately gave Smoke away.
"The Army wanted nothing to do with him," says Fulsom, referring to what is obviously still a sore point.
"The major told me, 'I gave it to this sheikh in Fallujah,' and the sheikh said, 'I gave it to this family in Ramadi or Fallujah,' and the family said, 'Well, he's a famous donkey, we want $30,000 for him," says Fulsom.
The sheikh has since offered to buy Smoke back for the marines, presumably at a lower price, but logistical hurdles remain - not least of all corralling Smoke, whom Folsom calls a "free-range donkey".
Children who grew up with the movie "Shrek," which features a talking donkey, sent Smoke cards, letters, and care packages with donkey treats.
The military made an exception to its ban on pets, officially declaring the gregarious donkey a working therapy animal.
"He's a symbol in my mind of humility and peace," adds Folsom, who now runs Wounded Warriors Family Support and is spearheading an effort to bring Smoke to Nebraska to work with children whose parents have been wounded or killed.
Once Folsom located Smoke, he worked out a plan with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to bring Smoke to the States.
The donkey would fly via Kuwait, Amsterdam, and Washington Dulles, where he would be quarantined for two weeks before being sent to his new home in Nebraska - first at Take Flight Farms in Omaha, and then to a Wounded Warriors retreat in the northwestern part of the state.
But Kuwait has stopped allowing donkeys to enter the country. "I was hoping to have the donkey back in Dulles by Christmas," says Folsom, who isn't giving up. "If not (via) Kuwait, there's Jordan. Or perhaps Turkey."
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