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Missoulian, Michael Gallacher, Associated Press
Hooves of donkeys that were neglected are seen here on Monday, Dec. 26, 2011 in Missoula, Mont. When the donkeys were rescued last year near Narada, Mont., their hooves were curled "like Persian slippers." Today they appear normal and the animals are able to walk around their new home free of pain.

MISSOULA, Mont. — In the Bible, Ruth exemplifies devotion and initiative. An equine version of the story here in Missoula does her justice.

Ruth the Donkey barely stood a chance a year ago, when she was a refugee from a failed large animal sanctuary in Niarada. Her hooves curled back like Persian slippers and her coat was matted and sparse when she appeared in the Missoulian last January.

Marie Andersen was one of dozens of area residents who offered to help.

"I went to get one and came home with three," Andersen said. "They were bonded into little groups and I couldn't split them up."

So Ruth brought along Naomi and Boaz, a little donkey clan whose fellowship gives Andersen comfort and solace every day after she takes off her robe as Missoula Municipal Court judge.

Unlike the Scripture story, Ruth is the oldest of the trio instead of the youngest. But she's also the group's leader and the one who's displayed the most fortitude in recovering from hard times at the sanctuary where so many animals were left untended — in some cases, for years.

"If you'd seen them six months ago, you wouldn't believe they'd still be here," said neighbor Ron Marks, who proposed the names. "They were skinny, hair coming out, skittish. Now they're to the point we can pet them. They're survivors."

Andersen has long been a volunteer at the Humane Society of Western Montana, providing foster care for dogs too traumatized to live in the shelter. She's also taken home barn cats too feral for adoption, allowing them to mouse about at her South Third Street West pasture.

"She had her own little preserve here," mother Mary Ann Andersen said of Marie. "But these guys — she hadn't got into rescuing big things before. It's fine with me. She has the room and it's what she likes to do."

And thanks to Ron and Nancy Marks next door, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz have even more room. Andersen contributes a case of beer a month in rent, and the donkeys get to roam among the neighbors' apple trees all the way to the Clark Fork River.

"I was a little worried about the noise," Ron Marks said of the potential braying. "But for the first two months, they didn't make a sound. They just ate."

More than 100 horses, llamas and donkeys were abandoned when the Niarada large animal sanctuary owners unexpectedly closed the operation. Many appeared to have been seriously neglected for up to two years, resulting in nutritional problems as well as physical deformities. Dozens were adopted by people across western Montana last January and February.

Despite their ill treatment in Niarada, Andersen's donkeys remain both courageous and kind. They don't fear the occasional bear that also comes to raid the apples, and Andersen's three-legged dog Kintla gets much more tolerance than two strangers with clanking cameras. Andersen said it's possible they think a pair of men showing up at the fence means another visit from the veterinarian (Ruth still has to be sedated before having her hooves cared for).

Incidentally, Missoulian readers may also remember Kintla under another name. She was formerly Chin-Chin, a rescue dog who came to the Humane Society last year severely beaten and pregnant with nine puppies. Once almost too scared to leave her kennel, Kintla now greets visitors with a wary sniff and a wag.

"I work with people all day," Andersen said as Ruth, Naomi and Boaz munched through a bucket of apples. "Here I just deal with animals. I'm thrilled with having them."