Donkeys may be the Democrats' animal of choice, but that isn't stopping California's Republican senator, Pete Wilson, from fighting to save a donkey's life.

Monday the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an order for the destruction of Sonette, a 6-month-old female donkey from France. The problem, the USDA said, isn't that the donkey is diseased; it's that the agency can't prove that she isn't.

Sonette is one of 60 Poitou donkeys in the world and the only one in the United States. The animal was brought to this country by Jack and Sharon Vanderlip, veterinarians at the University of California at San Diego, who planned to use her in a captive-breeding program.

But since her arrival two weeks ago, Sonette (French for Little Bell) has been held in quarantine by the USDA, with her demise scheduled for Dec. 26.

USDA officials have told the Vanderlips that they may ship the donkey back to France, but the couple says they don't have the funds to do that. They also say they're afraid that France wouldn't accept an animal that the United States has rejected.

The Vanderlips have enlisted Wilson, as well as an attorney, to help them fight the order. Today Wilson's office was advised by Bert Hawkins, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), that Sonette has been given a reprieve. Her destruction has been postponed until after Jan. 1, when she will be retested by the agency.

So far, tests administered to Sonette in this country have produced contradictory results. That isn't surprising because the USDA's tests for equine diseases are designed for horses, not donkeys. It was unclear whether the USDA would use the same method when it retests the donkey.

Dr. James Roswurm, APHIS veterinarian for California, said, "Basically, we understand that these tests may be worth nothing on this donkey . . . . She probably is not diseased , but we have no way to prove she isn't."

James Dolan, mammal curator at San Diego's Wild Animal Park, said his zoo has "had these kinds of problems. It's because Agriculture has an ineffective testing system. It makes captive-breeding programs very difficult. And I think if they wanted to, they could come up with a reasonable test."

Otto Bos, Wilson's press secretary, said the senator would continue his interest in Sonette's fate. "The Poitou ass," Bos said, "is probably the most unusual ass ever bred."