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Last week, Cuba's daily newspaper, Granma, breathlessly announced the country faced a mule deficit.
Yes, you read right: mule, as in, donkey, hee-haw, and all that. The dip in the "mule community" — their words — has triggered a countrywide census of the animals to ascertain the "veracity" of the shortage. The "National Mule Census" began Monday and will last ten days. The directive from above is clear: Even if census takers have to forge a river or climb a mountain, every long-eared, braying equine must be counted.
The paper reports the country might be some 8,000 burros in the red (pardon the pun). The pack animals are prized there for their "versatility" in transporting not only coffee but also cocoa and other agricultural staples to its most mountainous regions.
Upon hearing the census news, those kidders at the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times mocked the Cuban government for their antediluvian dilemma. But actually, guys, we count our mules too. And horses and llamas and pigs. Every five years the Department of Agriculture conducts its own census that itemizes the number of farm animals in the country by state, by numbers sold and killed. Sometimes, as with hogs and pigs, there are even quarterly reports. The next comprehensive census is in 2012.
As for our mules, turns out Florida had 6,200 in 2007, and the U.S. nearly 300,000. So much for braying rights. According to Granma, Cuba's second largest province, not even a tenth of the size of Florida, owned 3,700 mules last year.
What causes a mule shortage anyway? Too many pony boys? If horse slaughtering is as big an epidemic in Cuba as it is here, those mares better scram. For those and other related questions, we turned to Ben Tennison, editor in chief of Western Mule — phone number: 417-859-MULE.
"It's always been since the settlement of the West that there was a deficit of mules because the mule couldn't reproduce himself," he says. "He's shooting blanks." He explains that mules are sterile; they're actually bred from a male donkey and a female horse. If the mares are used to breed more horses than mules, you'll inevitably get a shortage. And y'all thought only Wikipedia could dispense random trivia.
Anyway, for as long as Tennison has been in the mule business, there's been more demand than supply for the animals. "They're a highly sought-after commodity because of their health and power," he adds. "Back in the 1800s, a mule was worth more than a horse."