One needn’t visit a yoga studio, a mountain peak or even an ashram to find one’s bliss. Just hoof it to Donkey Park. Donkey Park is a farm with 13 of the gentle beasts of burden and braying, right off 9W in Ulster Park.
Owner Steve Stiert has lived there since the 1980s, while working at IBM as a software designer. Once his daughter became a pre-veterinary student and joined a donkey club, Stiert started searching YouTube for fun donkey videos to send his daughter. Expecting to find videos of angry donkeys “being ridiculous,” Stiert was surprised to discover how unexpectedly gentle, calm and sweet the creatures were. He decided he wanted to welcome that energy into his life.
Finding himself abruptly out of a job in one of IBM’s many waves of layoffs, Stiert said he recognized it was a good time for a lifestyle change. Rather than raid the retirement fund for a sports car or a big boat, Stiert puzzled his neighbors by spending the next six months clearing over an acre of land and putting up paddocks and fencing.
Though most of his donkeys are rescues, he does not consider himself a donkey rescue organization, or a farm. “It just feels more like a park than a farm,” he said. So, he named it “Donkey Park.”
The donkeys calmly assemble around a new visitor, each looking for love, acknowledgement or a cuddle with their own unique request — sometimes a subtle tap, or a less-than-subtle nudge.
Donkey Park has nine miniature donkeys of varying sizes, a zonkey (half zebra, half donkey) and a mule gently milling about. Their nibbling on hay often interrupted with a periodic bray, individualized to each animal. “There is not an aggressive bone in their body,” said Stiert. The grounds are tidy, well-kept and spacious, with a serene vibe. This reporter’s hot cinnamon tea and generous mane-stroking excited the donkeys enough to congregate around me and follow my every move. It felt a lot like being attacked by a bouquet of daisies.
“I knew I didn’t want them to be lawn ornaments,” he said. “I wanted them to be stimulated, and have a greater purpose than existing in my backyard getting fat and lazy.” And so Stiert formed Donkey Park into a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit and wrote up a mission statement: “Donkey Park Inc. is dedicated to enriching the lives of donkeys and the communities with which they interact through education, welfare, research and ambassadorial activities.”
They can make it better
Stiert said he quickly recognized that the donkey’s quiescence makes them an excellent “therapist,” and so in efforts to bring them to the public and to bring the public to them, they began visiting nursing homes, schools and doing special events, such as walks and hikes. He brought the donkeys to a grade school in to reward the kids who took an optional test, and the donkeys personally delivered the test on the second floor. Though Stiert is reluctant to “oversell” donkeys by labeling them “therapeutic,” Stiert’s significant other, Ingrid Beer, said she sees a stark difference in kids’ behaviors from when they arrive to when they leave after having interacted with the gentle beasts. “They’re much calmer and more focused,” she said. Children’s welfare agencies, such as Head Start and Children’s Home of Kingston, visit regularly. The couple also said the feedback from nursing homes is that quiet seniors will open up and talk for weeks about their interaction, some even recalling days of past when donkeys were commonly seen on the rural Ulster County landscape.
Donkeys have an altogether different personality than horses, explains Stiert, when asked about their reputation for being difficult and stubborn. All animals are either fight or flight, he explained. Whereas horses are in a herd and their reaction is “flight” — led by one horse in the herd — donkeys are “fight.” However, since donkeys are also desert-dwellers that cannot afford to expound much precious body fuel from scarce food resources and cannot outrun predators, they react intelligently and focus on the decision to calculate their response based on their feelings of safety and comfort. “They have an evolved sense of self-preservation,” Stiert said. He likens a donkey’s response to that of a cat and how they relate to humans more like that of a dog. “Ask a donkey, tell a horse and negotiate with a mule,” Stiert mused.
Stripes the zonkey or a zedonk is the most energetic donkey on the farm. A cross between a zebra and a donkey, he arrived skittish and is more wired than his counterparts. Zebras are wild, and though environment is important to a donkey’s disposition, one cannot simply change a zebra’s stripes. Max the mule is slightly larger than the rest of the crew and frisks visitors’ pockets for treats. Stiert said he is most connected with Flint, a miniature looking for love, and Flint follows him around wherever he goes. Beer cited Stomper as her fave, she said, for his ceaselessly loving and gentle disposition.
Long ears, dexterous lips
Whereas horses tend to nibble on wood, donkeys tend to outright chow down on it. To wit, Stiert’s wheelbarrow handles have PVC tubes protecting them from the skilled, dexterous, prehensile lips of a donkey. Donkeys also have a dorsal stripe and shoulder stripe which together form a cross pattern across their shoulders. They have the characteristic long ears, bigger jaws and larger head to accommodate a bigger brain, and a stiff mane and a tassel-like tail.
Though Donkey Park seems like a quiet little oasis of donkey love tucked away from the greater community-at-large, it has been featured in national periodicals such as the New York Post, People, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Each animal costs the couple about $1,000 per year in food and vet bills, with an extra $4,000-$5,000 for unexpected illness or issues for which they fundraise. They have been working on capital improvements yearly, such as trailers, fences and paddock materials. “Donkeys don’t attract jerks,” said Stiert. “They have brought us so many beautiful people into my life.”
Today, there is a “Walk and Hike with Donkeys” meet-up group with over 700 members. Twice a year the donkeys do a special event crossing the Walkway Over the Hudson, even donning Santa hats and festive holiday blankets around the holidays. Stiert teaches “Donkey 101” classes at Cornell Cooperative Extension and Ulster Community College. Donkey Park also has over 20 volunteers who assist in everything from shoveling to handling at events to training to in-office administrative support.
Stiert credits his volunteers and the “donkey community” for Donkey Park’s success. He asks for volunteers to commit a few hours twice a month.
Two things Donkey Park does not do are birthday parties or living Christmas mangers. “I don’t want my donkeys to be used as ‘props,’” he said.
“No animal has worked harder for humans than the donkey,” said Stiert. “I want to make sure people know and appreciate donkeys and their value.”
A selection of donkey proverbs
“A doctor is just a book-loaded donkey.” — Portugal
“A donkey always acts like a donkey.” — Haiti
“The donkey carries the wine but drinks the water.” —Italy
“When God wants to please a poor man, he lets him lose his donkey and then find it again.” — Turkey
“Mules make a great fuss about their ancestors being donkeys.” —Germany
“The world would not make a racehorse of a donkey.” — Ireland
“A donkey has limited abilities.” — China
“It was the last sardine to break the donkey’s back.” — Portugal
“When they gave flowers to the donkey to smell, he ate them.” —Armenia
“What does a donkey know about the life of a nightingale?” —Romania
“If among people there were no donkeys, then one could not buy a donkey for even one hundred rubles.” —Georgia