Last week, a Cleveland-area high school drew outrage from the local community for planning a donkey basketball fundraiser scheduled for February 19th. The planning committee eventually decided to cancel the event in the face of public outcry, but another nearby high school did not. Just two days after the Brunswick High School prom committee announced their decision not to host a donkey basketball game, the Cleveland High School prom committee pitted faculty members from two schools against one another in a donkey ball game that ran into overtime.
According to Janet Davis, a professor at the University of Texas who studies the history of American entertainment and the animal welfare movement, "donkey basketball taps into a long historical tradition of animals performing unusual feats with people in unusual locations, such as the educated pig who is able to sing and play cards." "People love these events because they offer a kind of out-of-body experience -- an atypical interaction with an animal in an atypical environment -- hence the basketball-playing donkey," Davis said.
The companies who are hired to put on donkey ball fundraisers agree insofar as it's a key part of their promotional strategy. "Donkey ball offers an opportunity to get the whole family together and make memories, meanwhile supporting a local organization," said Brittany Brainerd, a spokesperson for Dairyland Donkeyball. " Watching or playing donkey ball is something different and out of the ordinary. It leaves a lasting memory that also helps bring many back year after year."
But Davis believes that the out-of-the-ordinary quality of controversial events like donkey ball, which has been criticized for needlessly placing animals in harmful or damaging environments, speaks to larger trends in society's relationship with animals in the 21st century. We don't need to interact with animals the way we used to -- for farm labor, for instance -- and so we've come to devise new forms of interaction, some of which can be detrimental to the creatures on which people used to rely for their livelihoods.
"It's interesting to note that donkeys historically labored on farms and in urban settings," Davis said. "In a motor-powered society, we're are virtually separate from the animals that used to power our world 100 years ago: today, donkeys typically don't perform the same labor that they once did." Instead, they help local organizations raise money, often for good causes, while also raising important questions -- like how on earth those donkeys ended up on a basketball court, and why people are there cheering them on.