When a Tennessee mule trader started shipping planeloads of mules to the Afghan rebels last year, handlers noticed that on takeoff, the mules automatically turned to face either forward or to the rear of the plane.
None of the mules stood facing sideways once the plane started in motion.The handlers were impressed that the mules instinctively assumed the best stance for maintaining their balance on an airplane hurtling down a runway for takeoff. Once the Boeing 747 was aloft, the 114 mules packed into the belly of the plane started milling around again.
The pilots said they had been leery about hauling mules, said Hub Reese Sr. But they found out the old mule is smart.
Mr. Reese's son, Hub Jr., has sent 684 mules to the mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan since last summer for use in their fight against the Soviet-backed Afghan government.
Hub Reese Jr., called Butch by his family, is believed to be the world's biggest mule dealer. He sells 2,000 to 2,500 mules a year, mostly at auction. The annual sale he conducts on Mule Day at Columbia, Tenn., is the nation's biggest.
Hub Sr., 79, bought, sold and traded mules for 50 years before retiring a decade ago and turning over the business to Butch. When Hub Sr. was born, his father already was in the mule business.
Like all mule lovers, the Reeses laud the mule's intelligence, strength, stamina and plain old character. Horses, they insist, aren't even close.
Horses look funny, said Betsy Hutchins of the American Donkey and Mule Society in Denton, Texas. They have funny little ears.
Probably the best-known champion of the mule was the late William Faulkner. The Nobel Prize-winning author from Mississippi kept both horses and mules, and rated the mule as the second-smartest animal after the rat, which he ranked first because it lives off its human hosts without doing any work for its keep.
In The Reivers, Mr. Faulkner wrote that he ranks the mule second only
because you can make him work for you. But that too only within his own rigid self-set regulations. He will not permit himself to eat too much. He will draw a wagon or a plow, but he will not run a race. He will not try to jump anything he does not indubitably know beforehand he can jump; he will not enter any place unless he knows of his own knowledge what is on the other side. He will work for you patiently for 10 years for the chance to kick you once.
Butch Reese said the mule's behavior on a coon hunt is a good example of his superior intelligence. Raccoons are hunted at night, and no coon hunter would venture into the woods in the dark on horseback. Instead they ride mules.
You wouldn't want to go out on a horse after dark, Mr. Reese said. He'll step in a hole or ride off a bluff. Not a mule. If you ride a mule up to a hole or a bluff, he'll stop.
A hard worker, the mule also will simply stop if he thinks he's in danger, or if he is being overworked.
He's not going to go, Mr. Reese said. And by no amount of kicking, cussing and stomping are you going to put that mule in a dangerous situation.
This sense of self-preservation is what gives the mule an undeserved reputation for obstinacy, said Wayne Jeffers, who raises mules at his farm in Limestone, Tenn., for sale to Amish farmers in Pennsylvania.
A mule is docile, said Mr. Jeffers, 55. They'll tell you about a mule being contrary, but they're cautious rather than contrary. See that water trough? A horse - just any horse - will come up here and start drinking. A mule has to be really thirsty to drink from a strange trough. He'll look at it and investigate it first.
Mules are a cross between a male ass and a female horse. By breeding a male horse to a female ass, you get a hinny, much rarer than a mule. Like all hybrid animals, both are sterile.
It's the only animal I know that if you killed every one of them today, you could reproduce him, Mr. Jeffers said.
Although they cannot conceive, except in rare instances, mare mules still go into heat. Males have such overwhelming sex drives they must be gelded.
They would mate a snake if they could get down low enough, Ms. Hutchins said.
The mule's famous kick is strictly a weapon of self-defense, Mr. Jeffers said. He said he has been kicked only twice by mules, and both times it was his own fault. He unwittingly startled the mules, he said.
In a pen of mules at his farm, he stood behind several of his mules and rubbed their flanks to demonstrate how docile they are when properly handled.
Hub Reese Sr. said he sold his mules to guides at the Grand Canyon, where they were used on trails too dangerous for horses. He also provided mules to pull tourists around New Orleans' French Quarter in carriages.
Mr. Reese said animal lovers objected to the use of mules in hot, muggy New Orleans, contending that it was cruel to the animals to subject them to that heat. Mr. Reese's brother-in-law, who had plowed mules from sunup to dark in the summer heat, testified in the case when it reached court.
Mr. Reese recalled that his brother-in-law, Marlin Curtis, told the judge: Hell, a damn mule is on a vacation down here.