They weren’t actually bred to stand in as comfort animals: the usual dogs and cats and horses that visit senior citizens’ and veterans’ homes or prisons or facilities that serve people with special needs. Yet donkeys – particularly the cute miniature ones – make for excellent partners in human/animal relational development. Steve Stiert of Donkey Park, Inc. in Ulster Park has witnessed the results of encounters between people and Equus africanus assinus, the creature that originated in northern Africa and became the literal workhorse of many cultures, including our own. He’s knowledgeable and fond of donkeys, and works to educate the rest of us as to their smarts and strength and companionability.
Domesticated by humans about 5000 years ago, no other species of animal has labored harder for us than the donkey, Stiert figures. They are smarter and relatively stronger than horses, particularly the hybrid mules. Like camels, donkeys can survive for several days without water, which makes them practical for use in arid climates.
Stiert keeps a small herd of a dozen miniature donkeys at his “park” – a term that he uses instead of calling it a ranch or farm, hinting at the leisurely lifestyle that his animals enjoy. Starting out with two, he quickly accumulated others; in a clip about how and why he owns donkeys, the soft-hearted guy, a one-time software engineer at IBM, makes a reference to the potato chip ad that challenges people to “only eat one.” Now he doesn’t only welcome visitors to Donkey Park, a non-profit organization with the mission to “enrich the lives of donkeys and the communities with which they interact through the direct care of donkeys in need; through research and education on the care and welfare of donkeys; and through the provision and promotion of ambassadorial and community service programs which demonstrate the value to people of interacting with donkeys.” He has also created a kids’ club and meet-up groups and a donkey walking/hiking program – all to promote the popularity and welfare of the animals.
His Little Brays of Sunshine collaborates with other community organizations, such as Gateway Industries, to develop programs specifically targeted to individuals with special needs. Last year Stiert hosted the Hudson Valley Donkey Conference, attended by both owners and veterinarians, which played a role in the development of Cornell University’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s donkey curriculum. Little Brays has been written up in local and national media, has contributed to Cornell’s annual Donkey Welfare Symposium – a yearly conference that attracts veterinarians and donkey experts and enthusiasts from around the world – and it has served as a network for educational information and adoption opportunities for local owners.
For four years, Stiert has promoted donkeys in ways that would help bring positive attention to this most important, yet most underappreciated of domesticated animal partners, and to help enrich the lives of those they touch. He and a small-but-growing community of dedicated volunteers raise awareness about how gentle and friendly donkeys are, demonstrating that bringing a little “bray” of sunshine into people’s lives enhances the experience for everyone. “Donkey 101” events held at Donkey Park acquaint folks with the basics in donkey behavior. If you want to join a hike and learn to lead one on a leash for a two-to-three-hour-long walk, this brief training is invaluable. Miniature donkeys are donkeys up to 36 inches at the withers (shoulder), and are not ridden. Think of them as big dogs – although Stiert notes that in some areas of the world, standard-sized donkeys still carry both loads and people. And did you know that donkey milk is considered the closest animal milk to human milk? Know what a zonkey is? Stiert, who refers to himself the “head jackass” of the organization, has one.
Little Brays will be at the Forsyth Nature Center Fall Festival on Sunday, October 9 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Come meet the herd. An “Introduction to Donkeys” class will be held on Saturday, October 29 through SUNY-Ulster’s Continuing Education program. To find out more about the Little Brays of Sunshine therapy donkey program and the Hudson Valley Walk and Hike with Donkeys group visit these websites: http://donkeypark.us and www.meetup.com/hudson-valley-donkey-walkers/events/234139460.
Introduction to Donkeys, Saturday, October 29, 12:30-4:30 p.m., $45, SUNY-Ulster Continuing Education, 35 Ulster Avenue, Ulster Park; (845) 389-9159, http://donkeypark.us, www.meetup.com/hudson-valley-donkey-walkers/events/234139460.