WHEN you think of man’s best friend, it’s usually a dog that springs to mind but the Donkey Sanctuary in Templepatrick have some very special four legged souls who can’t wait to make new acquaintances when society starts to move back to normality.
This time of year may be synonymous with ‘little donkey’ but these exquisite equines have a special place in the hearts of everyone who meets them.
The Sanctuary, which has been running here since 2011, once offered special riding activities but over the last decade, their experience has led to a very particular experience - donkey facilitated learning.
This is very much ‘donkey-led’ with the animal at liberty in a safe space so that the person involved - whether they be little or big - can interact and communicate with their equine friend.
The people who take part in the sessions include children, cancer survivors, people who have been excluded from society through mental health issues and those involved with the Cedar Foundation, as well as those who are individually referred from social services as people in crisis or those who more traditional forms of support have not worked for.
Lorraine Nelson explained: “By the time the riding activities were complete, we started to realise that there wasn’t that much time for the people to interact and it was like a lightbulb moment for us.
“These gentle sessions allow children and adults to interact gently with the donkeys better and forge a connection with them.
“We have seen cases where non-verbal children have spoken for the first time and these could be children who could be quite resistant to intervention so interaction in this safe space is wonderful for them.
“They will put their head next to the donkey’s or try to make eye contact or babble to them.
“It brings an awful lot to the children - and to their teachers too.
“The sessions are guided by our people who are trained in the animals so there is no pre-judgement or expectation which can allow the children to come into their own.”
With a small and dedicated staff at the sanctuary, all those who work there are very much in tune with the animals.
“As staff, we start each of our sessions with mindfulness and the donkeys react to us as a result of that.
“Donkeys are actually very similar in their emotional system to humans.
“You can find that if there’s someone who’s had a tough day then one of the donkeys would be more inclined to come and try to be attached to them.
“It’s quite new age, very different to what we were doing before and it’s wonderful.
“People quite commonly call it ‘donkey therapy’ but we’re not therapists, we’re trained in these animals and we facilitate this learning experience with them.”
The Sanctuary still relies entirely on charitable funding and like so many other organisations, Covid-19 has drastically affected it.
Closed to the public since March, not only have sessions been unable to go ahead, but their usual events and funding opportunities have been made impossible.
“We have open days and other events and this time of year is usually so lovely,” Lorraine continued.
“We had the Christmas Fair, the carol service and people would have donated carrots, apples and other things too.
“Like so many, we have to take every precaution.
“We must protect our staff in order to ensure they can continue looking after the donkeys.”
Despite this, there is still scope to support the sanctuary as members of the public can still adopt a donkey.
“It’s £36 a year or £3 a month and you get a lovely pack with pictures and updates through the year,” Lorraine said.
“We send a Valentine’s card from your donkey and it turned out to be the first one that one of our supporters - a lady in her seventies - had ever received.
“We have had children save their pocket money or do sponsored events to raise the money to adopt their donkey too.
“Every penny and every bit of support is vitally important.
“We have 7000 donkeys and mules in our care across the UK and we carry out work globally too and it’s so important that this work can continue.”
*To donate or adopt a donkey, visit thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk or call 028 9332 4647.