April 22, 2016 Sandy Robson
Author’s Note: I sent an email letter to the Ferndale School District on February 8, 2016, voicing my opposition to the February 13, 2016 donkey basketball fundraiser. After receiving Ferndale School District Superintendent Linda Quinn’s reply that afternoon to my email, and reading her statements in various news articles, I was curious about a number of things. So, I decided to request email records from the school district, pertaining to the February 13 donkey basketball event. Reviewing those records, caused me to write up this report on what went on behind the scenes with the school district relating to its decision to still hold the event, even though there was large opposition to donkey basketball being held at the local high school. This report is a lengthy read, as I included many quoted excerpts from some of the emails and news articles I reviewed, so that readers would get an in-depth view of what transpired. I hope that people find the information interesting and/or helpful.
Prior to Super Bowl weekend this year, most residents in Whatcom County, Washington, had never known about a donkey basketball fundraiser, sponsored by, and benefitting, the Ferndale FFA (Future Farmers of America), hosted at Ferndale High School. School officials say the donkey basketball event has been held in the city over the last 40 years, and is typically held every other year.
Donkey basketball is played on an indoor court and the goal is to get the ball in the hoop. Donkeys wear rubber shoes to protect the gym floor, and participants must sit atop the donkeys when they’re shooting and/or passing the ball. The company that provided the donkeys is Donkey Sports, Inc., which according to its contract (viewable online), receives over 50% of the ticket sale money that Ferndale FFA takes in from the fundraiser
Donkey basketball is viewed by animal welfare and animal advocacy groups, and by many individuals, as cruel, and an activity that is stressful and frightening to the donkeys. However, there are some people who view the games as acceptable entertainment.
The reason most Whatcom residents outside of Ferndale had little or no knowledge about this increasingly rare fundraiser was due likely to the fact that advertising for the event tends to primarily be word of mouth, limited to posters on store windows in town, and some announcements posted on the Ferndale School District’s website and Facebook page.
This year, however, word managed to get out to a larger audience outside of Ferndale about the February 13, 2016 event, after a photo of a donkey basketball poster displayed in a storefront window was posted on social media, on Saturday, February 6. By the next afternoon, on Super Bowl Sunday, news of the Ferndale High FFA donkey basketball event was spreading online throughout the local Whatcom County community, and beyond.
District received 479 letters opposing donkey basketball
According to email records I obtained from the Ferndale School District, the district received nearly 500 email letters regarding the February 13 donkey basketball fundraiser. Out of these, only about 10 letter writers were in support of the event. There were approximately 479 letter writers who voiced their opposition to the event, asking the school district to cancel it.
Screen shots of donkey-pulling occuring in three different Ferndale High School donkey basketball games. Screen shot in upper right corner is from this year’s (2016) February 13 event.
The school district refused to cancel the event, and it was held on February 13, at Ferndale High. According to school district administrative staff, the decision to proceed with the event was ultimately made by Ferndale School District Superintendent Dr. Linda Quinn. I was told that donkey basketball is not something the board would vote on.
Email letters had started trickling in on Sunday, February 7, and by Monday February 8, the district had received about 38 emails. By the afternoon of February 10, the district had received approximately 360 email letters, and that total was still climbing.
Two animal welfare organizations; the Whatcom Humane Society, (WHS) and Pasado’s Safe Haven (in Snohomish County), posted announcements on their Facebook pages, on February 7 and February 9, respectively, about the donkey basketball fundraiser. They asked their supporters concerned with the welfare of animals to contact Ferndale School District Superintendent Dr. Linda Quinn, and Ferndale High School Principal Jeff Gardner, to ask them to cancel the game. Pasado’s also encouraged their organization’s supporters to contact the Ferndale Les Schwab tire retailer and Les Schwab corporate CEO Dick Borgman, along with Ferndale Chief of Police Michael K. Knapp, since local Ferndale Les Schwab store employees and Ferndale Police Department employees would be fielding donkey basketball teams at the event.
Conflicting interests for school board president
By 3:33 PM on Monday, February 8, according to an email Superintendent Quinn sent to the school district board and the Executive Team, the district had received approximately 30 emails from people voicing their opposition to the donkey basketball game. In her email, Dr. Quinn informed them that she had met that morning with the Executive Team, Principal Gardner, and Director of Career & Technical Education Edwin Elefson, and that she had spoken with school board President Kevin Erickson (whom she stated is a veterinarian), about the brewing contention. She made a point to say in her email that Dr. Erickson needed to “be careful what he says” while wearing his veterinarian hat. She gave no explanation as to what exactly she meant.
School board President and veterinarian Kevin Erickson, is one of several partners at Kulshan Veterinary Hospital (KVH) in Lynden. KVH’s website states that historically, the business’ main emphasis was as a dairy-focused practice and now garners its strength from that foundation. KVH serves both production animals and companion animals, production animals being a large percentage of its business. The website also states that every year KVH’s veterinarians are involved with giving educational seminars for local FFA and 4H groups.
Dr. Erickson sent an email at 8:49 AM on February 8, to Superintendent Quinn and Principal Gardner, saying he was “trying to get some information/professional opinion from experts regarding this issue.” Erickson added: “I’m in a bit of a precarious situation with this one so I have to choose my words carefully. I’ve asked a couple of my partners who work with horses/donkeys to give me some input and I’ll get back to you with that information as soon as I can.” There was no explanation as to what exactly he meant when he stated he was in a precarious position.
Dr. Quinn replied at 9:22 AM that same day to Dr. Erickson’s email, and said, “Please let me know if you can give some professional input.”
In her February 8, email sent at 3:33 PM referenced above, Dr. Quinn told the board that according to Mr. Elefson, donkey basketball has been an FFA fundraiser going back to the 1970s, and she described it as a “longstanding tradition with a great deal of community support.” She added:
“We are between a rock and a hard place. If we cancel now, I am afraid the blow back will make concerns about Christmas seem small. If we go forward, we will undoubtedly get some bad press and probably some protestors at the event. Clearly the campaign to get the event stopped is well organized and possibly reaching a nationwide audience. It’s hard for me to know how many of the writers we’ve heard from are locals. I was ready to cancel the event, but cooler heads have prevailed. At this point, I think canceling it would be a much harder sell with our local community. (‘There she goes again, taking away all of our fun.’)”
Below is selected content from emails received by Ferndale School District on 02-07-16 and 02-08-16 advocating for the welfare of donkeys and/or students regarding the donkey basketball event. You can view email content individually by clicking anywhere on the collage below:
Levying a public relations campaign
It’s important to realize, that while the donkey basketball controversy was starting to brew on February 7, there was a February 9, 2016, special election ongoing at that time for the Maintenance and Operations Levy for Ferndale Schools. Ferndale voters were still voting in that election through February 9, Tuesday evening, so it is reasonable to believe the school board, and especially Superintendent Quinn, would be concerned the levy vote could be potentially impacted by the donkey basketball controversy that was arising.
In a February 11, 2014 special election, Ferndale voters had resoundingly rejected a proposed $125 million Ferndale school bond, so the school board and Superintendent Quinn likely felt pressure to have this year’s school levy be approved by Ferndale voters. The records provided to me seem to verify this was the case.
The Ferndale School District had already hired an election consultant, Liz Loomis, a public affairs professional who owns Liz Loomis Public Affairs. Loomis’ company provides strategic communication services for taxpayer-funded entities providing public services—getting bond and levy projects passed is one of the firm’s specialties, as is crisis management, according to its website.
In Linda Quinn’s February 8 email mentioned above, she told the school board and Executive
Team that “We reached out to our election consultant, Liz Loomis, who helped us develop the talking points below, the first set for the press and the second as an email response to everyone who has written in.” The two sets of talking points/statements were developed by Liz Loomis for the school district to use in response to the developing controversy surrounding February 13 fundraiser event.
Email communications show that Liz Loomis, and A.J. Chase who works for Liz Loomis Public Affairs, had been emailing back and forth with Superintendent Quinn, Mark Deebach, and Tammy Bengen since about 9:30 AM, that first day (February 8) of the developing donkey basketball situation. Those email communications did not include the other members of the Executive Team or the school board. By 12:40 PM that afternoon, Liz Loomis and A.J. Chase had scheduled a 1:30 PM conference call with Quinn, Deebach, and Bengen.
Decision made in less than seven hours
Sometime after that 1:30 PM conference call on Monday, and before Liz Loomis’ 2:28 PM email in which she had sent two sets of talking points/statements to Linda Quinn, Mark Deebach, and Tammy Bengen, the decision to move forward with the February 13 event had been made.
Those two sets of talking points/statements Liz Loomis sent had one major difference. The statement she crafted for the school district to use with the press clearly stated that the school district decided to proceed with the donkey basketball event. The statement she crafted for the district to send as a reply to the people who wrote to the school district and/or Ferndale High Principal Jeff Gardner, voicing their opposition to the donkey basketball game, did not state that the event was going forward.
As a matter of fact, in her email, Liz Loomis, alerted Quinn, Deebach, Bengen, and Chase, that in her crafted statement for the district to use in email responses to donkey basketball opponents, she purposely does not tell them that the event is going forward:
“Please note that I do not say that the event is going forward in the email responses. Most of these people will drop off after one response from you so there is no need to rile them further. However, you will need to say it’s going forward on the radio interviews because that question will be asked.” (emphasis Loomis)
At 2:58 PM, Linda Quinn sent a reply to Loomis, Chase, Deebach, and Bengen: “I think this is great! Thank you.”
At 3:20 PM, Loomis replied to all the recipients: “Once we are all set, Linda will want to call or email the radio stations ASAP. (You don’t want to debate the issue on the radio, but they can have a sound bite.) Then someone sends out the email replies at the end of today or tomorrow morning.”
‘Release the Kracken!’
By 3:40 PM, Quinn, Deebach, and Bengen had all weighed-in, via email, with their approvals on the statements crafted by Liz Loomis Public Affairs. After receiving that approval, Loomis sent an email at 4:10 PM saying:
“Allright, release the Kracken!”
Now, the plan was in play—send email responses late that afternoon (or next morning) to the donkey basketball opponents who had sent email letters, thus obfuscating the fact that the school district had already decided to move forward with the game—and tell the press that the event would still be held on February 13, as scheduled.
Sounds like the kind of shrewd plan that a paid public relations pro would devise in what may have been an attempt to appease voters on either side of the donkey basketball issue who had not yet cast their vote on the levy before the election deadline the following evening (February 9). The pro-donkey basketball side got what they wanted, which was for the game to proceed—and the anti-donkey basketball side was given the impression that the school district was still considering potentially canceling the event because Dr. Quinn’s email replies she sent out on February 8th and 9th to advocates for donkey and student welfare who were opposed to event, said the district would be having a conversation with students about whether the event should continue.
Another part of the overall crisis management plan regarding the fundraiser event was how to respond on social media. There were numerous people posting comments on the school district’s February 4th Facebook post about the event, asking that the school district cancel the game, voicing their opinion that donkey basketball is cruel and inhumane to the donkeys, and criticizing the school district for allowing such an event to take place in a school. There were also some comments posted by donkey basketball supporters.
You can click on any of the graphics below to view screenshots of Ferndale Schools February 4, 2016 Facebook post and selections from the accompanying comment thread:
Liz Loomis’ advice responding to a question sent via email from Tammy Bengen asking, “Besides the media and email contacts, do we want to respond via FB or web,” can be seen in her February 8 email sent at 4:25 PM to Ms. Bengen: “I’m going to say that we NOT respond on Facebook. I don’t want to give the antis another opportunity to respond. You might want to bury that entry [Facebook post] with a bunch of other FB posts, however.”
Email records show that on Monday, February 8, at 4:42 PM, Tammy Bengen sent an email to Joe Beaulaurier of Discover Ferndale, and an email at 4:45 PM to Brent Lindquist of the Ferndale Record, with the school district’s statement for publication, announcing its decision to move forward with the Saturday, February 13 donkey basketball event.
Quinn et al. did not even give the matter 24 hours to hear from more people before making this decision. Only approximately seven hours had gone by since the school board, Executive Team, Principal Gardner, and elections consultant Liz Loomis, had all first started communicating that morning about the developing donkey basketball controversy.
Meanwhile, at approximately 4:40 PM, Monday afternoon, Linda Quinn started sending email replies to the 38 people who had sent her emails that voiced concern for student and donkey well-being who were opposed to the scheduled donkey basketball game. In each of those 38 emails, Dr. Quinn used the same statement that election consultant Liz Loomis had crafted to send donkey basketball opponents, which did not say that the event was going forward.
Was due diligence done?
There were still four days to go before the scheduled event, during which it would seem the welfare of students and donkeys, in regards to the game, could have been more carefully evaluated. Over the course of those pre-event days there was a wealth of information/input from people, as well as an opportunity to do additional outreach to more sources. Board President Kevin Erickson had only consulted his KVH partners, however, and because of the district’s quick decision on the afternoon of February 8th, none of those things happened.
Below is selected content from emails from people referencing their expertise received by Ferndale School District advocating for the welfare of donkeys and/or students regarding the donkey basketball event. You can view email content individually by clicking anywhere on the collage below:
As a matter of fact, a February 8 email sent by Dr. Erickson at 10:22 PM to Superintendent Quinn, shows that the district had made the decision to go ahead with the donkey basketball game, even though Erickson had not finished gathering input from his equine KVH veterinary partners. “I’m still working on gathering factual (vs emotional) information about how these animals are handled and hope to have more of a summary for you/us tomorrow,” wrote Erickson in his email. This supports the idea that the decision to move forward with donkey basketball had been made hastily, and without proper due diligence.
On Tuesday, February 9, the school levy election day, Dr. Erickson wrote an email reply to a donkey basketball opponent who had sent an email letter to him and to Dr. Quinn, and said, “a great deal of time has been spent discussing this issue including researching concerns and considering alternatives.” However, this does not appear to be the case.
According to a February 9 email from Tammy Bengen, sent at 2:00 PM to election consultant Liz Loomis, A.J. Chase, Superintendent Quinn, and Mark Deebach, the number of people contacting the school district, expressing their discontent with donkey basketball was increasing. Ms. Bengen let them know that KOMO News and KING 5 had contacted the district about the event, and that a few more comments had been posted on the school district’s February 4th Facebook post about the donkey basketball fundraiser, so she had been putting up more posts on the district’s Facebook page “to try to bury it.”
A little later that same afternoon, February 9, a Whatcom County resident sent an email to Dr. Erickson, asking him to provide the names and numbers of the veterinarians whom he said the district had consulted. Erickson replied in an email that evening saying:
“Admittedly, I hesitate to provide you with the names and contact information of the veterinarians I have consulted for fear that they will be bombarded by undue emails and phone calls regarding this issue…With their assistance, I have also heard input from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Donkey & Mule Society, the local humane society that visited the Donkey Sports, Inc. farm where these donkeys live, from Bruce Wick, President of Donkey Sport, Inc. and Laura Clark, Whatcom Humane Society Executive Director. Interestingly, neither the American Association of Equine Practitioners or the American Donkey & Mule Society have come out against these events.”
It is important to keep in mind that while Dr. Erickson is President of the school board, he is also a veterinarian, and yet he did not disclose that pertinent fact to the individuals to whom he sent email responses saying, “the district had consulted with local veterinarians regarding the welfare of the animals.” He also failed to disclose the fact that the veterinarians he consulted were partners of his at KVH.
In trying to confirm the statement made by Dr. Erickson that he heard (with the assistance of the vets he consulted) input from the local Humane Society he said had “visited Donkey Sports, Inc. farm where these donkeys live,” I contacted Executive Director Dawn Davies, of the Wenatchee Valley Humane Society, which serves the Entiat area, and asked about her knowledge of a visit to Donkey Sports, Inc. farm. Ms. Davies told me that Donkey Sports, Inc. is not in her software system, she doesn’t know them, she has never met them, and she has never been to their facility. She further explained that one of her animal control officers knows them simply because that officer lives in Entiat and it is a small community, but as far as ever being called, or doing an onsite inspection, that there is nothing in the Wenatchee Humane Society’s system that says they have ever been to Donkey Sports, Inc., visited them, or checked out their facility.
I asked Ms. Davies if she had been contacted by any veterinarian from Whatcom County about Donkey Sports, Inc., as Dr. Erickson had alluded in his email, and she said she had not been contacted, and that there were no notes about that in their computer system. At the end of our call, she added that the Humane Society of the United States, in general, does not approve of animals for entertainment.
Superintendent questions decision
In a number of the news articles on local media, Superintendent Quinn had stated that it was too late to cancel the donkey basketball event. A February 11, 2016 article in The Bellingham Herald reported:
“Linda Quinn, superintendent for the Ferndale School District, said she wasn’t going to cancel the game because concerns were raised too close to the event, when FFA students already had invested time and money in getting the donkeys here. ‘It’s very far down the line. It’s not an illegal activity,’ Quinn said.”
Actually, it didn’t appear to have been too late to cancel the event, because according to an email Dr. Quinn sent to the school board on February 10, at 2:04 PM, the day after the school levy election was over and the levy had been safely approved by Ferndale voters, she considered the idea of canceling the February 13 donkey basketball game:
“The opposition to our Donkey Basketball game has gone national, and I am being inundated with emails and phone calls from around the country, some of them pretty mean and borderline threatening…overall I would have to characterize the opposition as pretty ugly.
“On the other hand, the local community seems to be digging in to support the tradition of holding Donkey Basektball [sic]. Rusti Elefson said last night that people are coming into the bank to buy tickets who have never gone to the event before and never planned to go this year until outsiders started trying to tell Ferndale what we could and couldn’t do. (I am paraphrasing a little.)”Canceling the event now would, I am afraid, create tremendous community backlash. With that said, I am willing to do so, and to take the credit for doing so, if that’s what you think is best.”
School board member Stuart McKay replied about an hour later saying: “I don’t think we need to cancel at this time.. Other than some people thinking they know how donkeys think and feel (are they related), there doesn’t seem to be any real ‘case’, for not going ahead as planned. I particularly liked the one ‘you can see the by look on their face(s) that they aren’t having any fun’ (slight paraphrased)…”
The next to reply to Dr. Quinn, was school board member Andrew Mclaurin, who sent an email saying: “I’m sorry you are having to deal with this. It is a legal activity and at this point I am in favor of continuing as planned. We can discuss future events at another time. I think your plan is a politically correct one.”
Board President Erickson sent his reply late that same evening to Dr. Quinn, telling her: “I’m also not in favor of canceling the event at this time. Unfortunately there’s a bigger agenda to this then just getting Ferndale High School to cancel Donkey Basketball. Erickson provided no explanation as to what that supposed “bigger agenda” was.
There were no email records showing school board members Hugh Foulke, or Lee Anne Riddle, responding to Dr. Quinn’s February 10 email about reconsidering the possibility of canceling the donkey basketball event. Although, it is important to note that in a February 8 email sent by Ms. Riddle to Dr. Quinn and Dr. Erickson, she had already voiced her opinion on donkey basketball when she wrote: “While donkey basketball has always made me cringe, I had assumed it would not be able to happen without some assurance that the donkeys were safe. I hope that is the case. I told Linda in another email that I would have canceled.”
The other two school board members are students, and as such, are non-voting members of the board. They sent no replies to Quinn’s email.
So, with Mclaurin, McKay, and Erickson staying on-board the donkey basketball train, Quinn’s flickering reconsideration of possibly canceling the event was snuffed out.
Also, in reviewing the email letters opposing the event that were sent to the school district up until the time of Dr. Quinn’s February 10 email, it is simply not accurate to characterize the opposition, overall, as “pretty ugly.” To say that any of the emails were “borderline threatening” seems, to me, a stretch.
Below is a description of some elements of the 358 emails received by Ferndale Schools regarding the February 13 donkey basketball event prior to Linda Quinn’s email statement on February 10 characterizing the “opposition” overall as “pretty ugly.”
Checking up on the checking
The February 11 Bellingham Herald article referenced above also reported that Superintendent Quinn stated, “We have checked and double-checked how these animals are treated.”
I spoke with Dr. Quinn in a phone call and asked her if Dr. Erickson, in consulting with his veterinary partners at KVH, had provided any written notes or summary of any information about that to her, and to the school board members. She said he did not, and that she did not check with any vets other than Dr. Erickson. I asked her if it was then more a case of Dr. Erickson simply giving a thumbs up in terms of still proceeding with the donkey basketball event, and she said that is correct.
I checked with WHS’ Laura Clark, and Pasado’s Safe Haven’s Director of Investigations and Rescue Operations, Kim Koon, and asked them if anyone with the school district had asked them for any referrals to professionals the district could consult with, in terms of animal welfare related to donkey basketball. Kim Koon responded in an email:
“I was not asked for any opinion, resources or information by the school district on the effects of this event on the donkeys.”
Laura Clark also sent her response via email which said:
“I was not asked by anyone at the Ferndale School District for referrals to or for information on how to contact any other animal welfare professionals or equine or livestock rescue groups or organizations in regards to the donkey basketball event. I did have various phone conversations and email exchanges the week prior to the event with Linda Quinn [and] with Scott Brittian, the assistant superintendent.”
To all appearances, the school district relied on information about the treatment of the donkeys mainly from these sources:
–From Bruce Wick, the owner of Donkey Sports, Inc., a business which he owns, and from which, he profits.
–From school board President, Dr. Kevin Erickson, a veterinarian, who consulted his vet partners at KVH, which draws a large part of its business from animal production clients such as farmers and ranchers, many of whom are/were involved with the FFA. This creates a potential conflict of interest for him with his involvement in providing any information and/or advice regarding the donkey basketball event that benefited the FFA organization.
Animal welfare versus veterinary medicine
While I’m confident that the veterinarians at KVH are well qualified and respected, and provide excellent care for their animal patients, the equine vets Dr. Erickson consulted view animals used in animal production through a different lens than animal welfare organizations. It seems reasonable to expect that educational administrators would seek a balance of those two lenses, but that does not appear to have been the case. The scale was tipped by Dr. Erickson, who as both president of the school board, and a veterinarian, should likely have recused himself from the donkey basketball issue altogether.
Dr. Quinn told the media that she was getting pressure from the community to support the FFA students, and getting pressure from “animal rights activists” around the country to stop the donkey basketball game. The statement that election consultant Liz Loomis crafted for the district to use with the media used the terms “animal rights groups” and “animal rights community” to describe opponents to donkey basketball.
Out of the nearly 500 email letters I reviewed, I did not see one email in which someone identified themself as an “animal rights activist.” There was one letter writer who it would be reasonable to characterize as having been from an “animal rights group.”
The district received several emails from people who identified themselves as members of animal welfare and/or advocacy groups. In fact, there were emails from people of all walks of life, a sampling of which, included individuals who were: parents of children in the Ferndale School District; teachers; former teachers; a principal from a Skagit-area school district; a social worker; veterinarians; a board certified psychiatrist from Seattle; lifelong equestrians; horse and donkey owners; a horse trainer; a livestock owner; 4-H alumni; health care professionals; and even a professional fundraiser willing to donate their services free-of-charge, to help the school district after having just finished raising $200,000 (during a 5 month period) to benefit a popular Seattle attraction.
Below is selected content from emails from people referencing their expertise received by Ferndale School District advocating for the welfare of donkeys and/or students regarding the donkey basketball event. You can view email content individually by clicking anywhere on the collage below:
School board President Kevin Erickson wrote in his February 10 email to Superintendent Quinn, “I respect the rights of these people to have their opinion and it’s unfortunate that they won’t respect the opinion of those that disagree with them. I feel a bit like we’re the ones being bullied.”
In his email, Erickson took on a victim identity when most of the concerns expressed by nearly 500 donkey basketball opponents were about the donkeys being the real victims, and the students potentially experiencing the negative consequences of participating in such an event. Erickson and his fellow educators are responsible for their students’ well being under their supervision, yet somehow they failed to see and investigate the possible ramifications of such an activity impacting young, developing minds.
Since the opposition to the February 13 donkey basketball fundraiser was/is about the welfare of the donkeys, I thought it fitting to close this report out with a paragraph from a February 8 letter sent to the Ferndale School District, written by a resident of Whatcom County after she had learned of the school district’s decision that afternoon to move forward with the event:
“It is indeed dismaying that the donkeys involved in the event that you have said you are allowing to proceed will have one more mandatory engagement at Ferndale High School on Saturday February 13th. They will have another evening where they have to do their best to be sure that no humans are injured and where they will not be allowed to defend themselves against humans if they become alarmed or scared, all during an affair that is not for their benefit. For Ferndale High, it is just one more nighttime event. It is quite tragic however that after decades of doing so, you are once more contributing to the cycle of these creatures being hired out for event after event, year round (looks like they get a break for the month of September): donkeys, at the very least, getting pulled against their will year-round. Every year. Donkey Sports, Inc. is ‘NOW SCHEDULING GAMES SEVEN DAYS A WEEK’ and office hours are 7 a.m. – 10 p.m.”