MORAVIA, Iowa – It's a Monday night in this small south-central Iowa farm town, and the high school gym is full. There's a buzz in the air. Before long, the stars amble in from a side door — on all fours.
Donkey basketball is alive and well in rural America.
Invented in the 1930s, the "sport" where humans mount the beasts of burden and shoot hoops was seen as affordable Depression-era entertainment. The game morphed through the years into a popular fundraising vehicle for schools and other organizations.
But animal rights groups are crying foul. They contend the donkeys are mistreated by participants and handlers. Pressured by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, some school districts have canceled individual donkey basketball events and others have banned the spectacles altogether.
Donkey ball proved to be a popular draw in Moravia. The town's population is 680, and there were 600 in the gym.
"My favorite area is the Midwest. Some of these towns, there just ain't nothing to do. When you come to a town like this, it's just really good. Everyone has a good time," said Kenny Schappacher of Ohio-based Buckeye Donkey Ball, which put on the show here.
Donkey basketball is played 4-on-4, usually with local celebrities, school faculty or members of student organizations making up teams. Players wearing helmets but no other padding attempt to maneuver their donkeys up and down the floor during two eight-minute halves. A player isn't allowed to shoot unless he or she is seated on a donkey.
A donkey might buck, or it might duck, causing its rider to slide off. Sometimes, the donkey just decides to lie down.
Players are allowed to dismount and pull a donkey by its lead. The donkeys, of course, are reluctant to budge.
The spills and futile attempts at coaxing uncooperative donkeys prompted laughter and finger-pointing from spectators, who paid $8 at the door. The public-address announcer sprinkled in running commentary encouraging or poking fun at the players.
To the folks in Moravia, the concerns of animal rights activists were irrelevant to their daily life.
"We're just a bunch of good ol' boys and farmers down here in rural Iowa, so we're not too worried about PETA," said Angela Stufflebeam, who organized the event. "I'm more worried about the guys on the donkeys."
As well she should have been. Her daughter, Shelby, suffered a broken collarbone when her donkey threw her a couple minutes into the first game.
Participants sign medical waivers promising to take no legal action against the donkey basketball operator if they get hurt.
Before the game started, the announcer read a statement telling the crowd that the donkeys are treated humanely and that their hooves are fitted with rubber shoes so the floor won't be scuffed.
Then it was game on.
Schappacher, who has been involved with donkey basketball since 1976, said he puts on five to seven donkey basketball games a week during the peak October-to-May school fundraising season. The Moravia event generated $2,300 for the school band's summer trip to New York.
Four teams of Buckeye Donkey Ball donkeys travel town to town from Pennsylvania to Iowa. Schappacher, one of the company's four operators, hauls the animals in a trailer hitched to his pickup. He serves as a quasi ringmaster at the game site, herding the donkeys up and down the court with a light white stick in his right hand.
He didn't strike any donkeys, but the animals, if at a standstill, would break into a light gallop when he tapped the stick on the floor behind them.
Desiree Acholla, PETA's animals-in-entertainment specialist, said the games are cruel because the donkeys get confused in the chaotic atmosphere of the gym.
She said she receives reports of donkeys getting punched and kicked by inexperienced riders, and the animals' backs are stressed by having to carry more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms). She also said it's common for operators to withhold food and water so the donkeys don't defecate or urinate during games.
As Schappacher was being interviewed during a break in the action here, one of his donkeys had an "accident," prompting a student clean-up crew to grab a nearby shovel.
"Everybody thinks they starve them donkeys so they don't poop on the floor. Well, you just seen what happened there," he said. "You see how fat they are. They don't miss any meals. We give them good hay and we take real good care of them, make sure they're not abused.
"There are a lot of people out there who don't like donkey ball, but they're usually city folks who ain't never been around any animals before."
Crystal Ward, who has been breeding and training donkeys for 30 years at a ranch in Placerville, California, said a donkey isn't harmed by being pulled if a halter and lead rope is used rather than a bridle and bit. She said standard-sized donkeys can carry at least 150 pounds (68 kilograms) of "live weight" with no problem, though she acknowledges that many of the donkey basketball game participants weigh significantly more.
Donkeys, inch for inch, are able to bear more weight than horses, she said.
"Overall, I don't see any huge red flags with donkey basketball," she said.
As for the donkeys' reacting with fear to the sight or sound of the handler's stick, Ward likened it to a racehorse responding to a jockey's whip. She said equine animals often are zapped with electrical devices in training and that the practice, though considered inhumane by some, is generally accepted.
Kelsey Flattery, a Moravia High band member who played in one of the games, said Schappacher instructed participants beforehand not to strike the donkeys or pull on their ears, hair or tails. A misbehaving player gets one warning before being kicked out of the game, Schappacher said.
Flattery didn't see a problem with the games.
"As long as we're not being cruel to them, I don't think there's anything wrong with it," Flattery said. "Isn't it just the same as riding a horse?"
Apparently not, according to some.
The Portland (Oregon) Public Schools banned donkey basketball, as have school districts in Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other places.
In March, a donkey basketball game scheduled for Kuna, Idaho, was canceled after 27-year-old auto mechanic Josh Maus started a petition drive. Maus said he's not actively involved with PETA, "but I am on their mailing list."
"There are better fundraising alternatives to donkey basketball that don't use animals but are designed so that everyone can participate," Maus wrote in an e-mail.
Donkey Sports of Entiat, Washington state, was lined up to run the Kuna event, and owner Bruce Wick said it was the first time he had had one canceled. Wick said his business still does about 150 donkey games a year, about the same number as Buckeye Donkey Ball.
"We never really gave PETA much mind," Wick said. "Usually when they fuss about a game, it brings more people to watch."
Acholla said PETA typically uses letter campaigns to school administrators to protest upcoming donkey basketball games.
Moravia Superintendent Brad Breon said he was not contacted by animal rights activists in advance of his school's event.
Said Schappacher: "This is just good old fun riding a bunch of donkeys. If these donkeys weren't doing this, they would probably be in a dog-food can somewhere."