The UC Davis community recently lost one of its most venerable members, the 29-year-old donkey Action Jackson, who died Jan. 6 after standing at stud at the Horse Barn for two decades — siring well over 500 donkeys and mules — and, with his “talkative” behavior, entertaining countless visitors to the barn on La Rue Road.
Although Action Jackson had a serious, chronic, foot-related ailment called laminitis, his death came as a shock to staff, faculty and students, said Amy Mclean, equine operations supervisor for the Department of Animal Science.
“Action was a kind, warm spirit; I loved driving in every day and seeing him,” said Mclean, whose earlier doctoral research focused on mules and donkeys. “The mules that he produced have amazing dispositions, a trait which is often related to their sires, or ‘jacks’,” she said.
Just a quick primer on mules and donkeys: A male donkey (called a jack) and a female donkey (a jenny) produce a donkey, while a male donkey and a female horse (mare) produce a mule. Less common, a female donkey bred to a male horse (stallion) produces a hinny.
As hybrid animals, mules cannot reproduce but they are highly valued in many parts of the world for transporting cargo and in the United States for driving, showing, packing and pleasure riding.
On loan to UC Davis breeding herd
Born in 1987, Action Jackson was a light colored donkey with a rose tint — what equine aficionados call a red-grey roan. He came to live at UC Davis in September 1996 when Pat Downing of Tucson, Arizona, donated him to stand at stud in the animal science department’s breeding herd.
Downing had earlier donated one breeding service with Action Jackson to the department, which resulted in the July 1997 birth of a dark brown male mule. He was Action Jackson’s first UC Davis offspring and the first mule born on campus in 60 years. Named Action’s Graduate, the young mule would go on to be inducted in 2013 to the Bishop Mule Days Hall of Fame, according to Dan Sehnert, longtime facilities coordinator for the animal science department.
A campus favorite for children
Locally, the prolific donkey was perhaps best known for his outgoing personality and that sonorous braying— as if he were talking to you.
“He loved attention, especially from children,” Sehnert said. “He also had a sweet tooth — he never saw a donut that he didn’t like.”
It was a trait that led to Action’s being immortalized in bronze in 2004. Eliana Meyer, the young daughter of local sculptor Trent Meyer and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Deanne Meyer of the animal science department, frequently visited the Horse Barn in those days, bringing carrots and Starburst candies for Action Jackson.
Taken by Eliana’s affection for the big donkey, the artist father generously decided to create 50 quarter-scale bronze busts titled “The Jack,” which he donated to be sold to raise funds to help improve the department’s equine facilities.
Esteemed among mule fanciers
Action also was well known off-campus, especially at Mule Days, held every Memorial Day in Bishop, which boasts being the “Mule Capitol of the World.” Bishop is in the southern Sierra Nevada, on its eastern slope.
“Prior to Action, Californians would look to the East Coast, South and Midwest for quality mules,” said Rich Engel, a Bishop native and UC Davis’ assistant vice chancellor of Alumni Relations.
“His presence really helped bring quality mule breeding to the West Coast and, at the same time, brought a lot of distinction to UC Davis for its breeding program,” Engel said.
Action Jackson’s most recent offspring — two foals born last spring at the Horse Barn — will be offered in this year's annual June production sale. Another of his foals is expected to be born this year, according to Mclean. The department’s student equine production team also hopes to breed several mares and female donkeys using frozen semen from Action Jackson, she said.