Image: Smoke the Donkey in Iraq
AP
Smoke the Donkey takes part in a Freedom Walk event at Camp Taqaddum, Iraq. The donkey is now a U.S. resident.
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updated 5/14/2011 7:30:07 PM ET 2011-05-14T23:30:07

It took 37 days and a group of determined animal lovers, but a donkey from Iraq is now a U.S. resident.

Smoke The Donkey, who became a friend and mascot to a group of U.S. Marines living in Iraq's Anbar Province nearly three years ago, arrived in New York this week aboard a cargo jet from Turkey. After being quarantined for two days, he was released Saturday and began a road trip to Omaha, Neb., where he is destined to become a therapy animal.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International announced Smoke's arrival in New York on Thursday.

By Saturday afternoon the trailer carrying Smoke, named for its color, had driven through Baltimore and was on its way to Warrenton, Va., for a meet-and-greet with some fans.

The donkey will live and help Wounded Warriors Family Support, an organization founded by Ret. Marine Col. John Folsom, commandant of Camp Taqaddam when Smoke showed up, the SPCA said.

"Marines aren't all tough guys with hard hearts — we're suckers for kids and animals," Folsom told reporters in December amid efforts to transport the equine.

Smoke was handed over to another Marine unit when Folsom's unit left. When the last of the Marines left Iraq last fall, they gave Smoke to the Army unit replacing them. An Army major immediately gave Smoke away, the Indo Asian News Service reported.

"The Army wanted nothing to do with him," Folsom had said.

Folsom used to walk Smoke daily and had formed a bond with the animal. It didn't seem right that Smoke was left behind, he said in a telephone interview Saturday.

The donkey, which once snatched and ate a cigarette from a careless Marine, was such a part of the unit that he received his own care packages and cards from children who grew up with the movie "Shrek," featuring a talking donkey.

A major had given the donkey to a Fallujah sheik who reportedly passed it along to a family but offered to get it back, at first for $30,000. The sheik later dropped the charge, but logistical problems in getting the animal back the states ensued.

There was the bureaucracy of getting Smoke nearly 7,000 miles around the world: blood tests, health certifications and forms from customs, agriculture and airline officials.

To cut through the red tape, Folsom got help from the SPCA, which has a project that transports dogs and cats from Iraq to the United States.

The group, however, had never attempted airlifting a donkey, which is more complicated because equines can't be transported on traditional commercial aircraft and must go by cargo plane.

The donkey's journey has provided laughter — and head scratching — along the way.

"People just couldn't believe we were going to these great lengths to help a donkey because donkeys in that part of the world are so low down on the totem pole," said the society's Terri Crisp, who negotiated the donkey's passage from Iraq to the United States. "Donkeys are not viewed as a companion animal. They're viewed as a work animal."

As frustrating as the journey sometimes was for those involved, including a week-long delay getting Smoke in to Turkey and another three weeks to get out, the donkey found friends and supporters along the way, Crisp said. They included the U.S. ambassador in Turkey, who at one point was getting daily updates.

"I think people did finally come to realize that this is one of these out-of-the-ordinary situations. Once you met him and saw what a unique donkey he was, it was hard to say no to him," Crisp said, describing Smoke as "gentle" and "mischievous" as well as a food-lover — carrots and apples in particular.

The journey, which started April 5, wasn't cheap.

The society estimates it cost between $30,000 to $40,000 from start to finish, with expenses such as $150 to ship Smoke's blood from Turkey to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Iowa, $18,890 for a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt, Germany and $400 a day for quarantine in New York. Folsom says he recognizes some people may be critical of the expense, which was paid for through donations, but he says he considers it payback for the donkey that was such a friend to Marines.

"Why do we spend billions of dollars of pet food in this country? Why do we do that?" Folsom said. "We love our animals. That's why."

Folsom saw the donkey for the first time in years Saturday when he arrived in New York to transport him to his new home in Omaha. The journey to Omaha is expected to take two days, and Folsom said Smoke is already getting used to seeing big, green trees instead of desert.

"He's an American donkey now," Folsom said.

msnbc.com staff also contributed to this report.

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