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 organisations.
But animal rights groups are crying foul. They contend the donkeys are mistreated by participants and handlers. Pressured by organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, some school districts have cancelled 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 favourite 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 organisations making up teams. Players wearing helmets but no other padding attempt to manoeuvre 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 $US8 ($A10.79) 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 organised 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 $US2,300 ($A3,103) 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 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, 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."
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