Miniature donkeys break barriers, help as therapy animals

Mira Bowin, Rachele Levy and Little Brays of Sunshine organizer Steve Stiert took a stroll down the rail trail in New Paltz last Saturday with miniature Mediterranean donkeys Romper, Stomper and Flint. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Coming across a curious sight, joggers and pedestrians came to a full stop on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail on Saturday. What they saw was this: A half-dozen humans leading a quarter-dozen miniature donkeys down the trail. But that was all a part of Steve Stiert’s plan. Those tiny donkeys — roughly as big as large dog — are a part of the community service project “Little Brays of Sunshine.” Stiert and his fellow donkey handlers were using their walk on the rail trail to socialize the animals to random encounters with unexpected humans.

Those little burros — burritos, if you will — are therapy donkeys. The Little Brays of Sunshine travel from nursing homes to schools to hospitals to visit anyone who might need a little pick-me-up.

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“The purpose of the program is to bring a little sunshine into the lives of people living diminished lives. So that would be people in nursing homes, or maybe kids with development disabilities,” he said. “They’re kind of like stress sponges. They’re just very calm animals and it’s easy to relax around them and unwind.”

Dogs and horses are often used as therapy animals. “They’re kind of like therapy dogs, in that they fulfill the same niche as a therapy dog,” Stiert said. “What’s unique about them though is that they’re different — they’re not dogs. For the senior citizens, in particular, it tends to capture their attention more.

“A lot of senior citizens grew up in rural areas. So to have a connection again to an animal that’s considered kind of a farm animal is actually kind of exciting for them.”

Thera-Pets, in Peru, NY, is a sister program to Sunshine. They first started using the diminutive asses as therapy animals back in 2005. They’ve had amazing results.

“There was a woman who was pretty much comatose, and the nursing home said, ‘Don’t even bother bringing the donkey in there because she doesn’t respond to anybody.’ They brought the donkeys in anyway, and the woman sat up in her bed and — for the first time in a year — started communicating,” he said. It turns out they evoked special memories for that woman.

“She said, ‘when I was a kid we had donkeys,’” he explained.

Mira Bowin, one of the donkey handlers, pointed to the amount of research already done on horses as a therapy animal. “There’s a huge evidence base for different kinds of equine therapies,” she said. Animals have a capacity to bring people out of their shells because they offer affection without social judgment.

“There’s not even the same consequences of interacting with an animal. There’s different consequences, but some of the skills you learn dealing with the animals translate,” Bowin said.

Little Brays of Sunshine’s donkeys have a pleasing effect on just about everyone they met on the rail trail. There were lots of bemused smiles and double takes.

“You see people’s eyes light up when they see the animals,” she said.

Stiert said his program is also working with the local 4-H Club to give youngsters an opportunity to care for the animals, to brush them, present them and explain the breed to those who don’t know much about miniature donkeys.

“It’s a good opportunity for kids to develop their speaking skills,” he said.

Miniature asses are an ancient breed of donkey that originally developed in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. In agriculture, they’re primarily used to carry a pack or pull carts. It’s also a breed that’s very gentle in temperament and highly sociable.

To learn more about the program, contact Stiert at 389-9159 or steve@stiert.com.