March 15, 2017

CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation
CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation

The Donkey Sanctuary is the world’s largest donkey and mule sanctuary and has 10 farms situated in the UK and Ireland. Dr Elisabeth Svendsen MBE founded The Donkey Sanctuary in 1973. To date over 15,000 donkeys have passed through the Donkey Sanctuary’s gates in the UK and Ireland. There are 10 farms. The charity’s mission statement is

  • ‘To relieve the suffering of donkeys, mules and other such animals in need of care and attention anywhere in the world and to provide and maintain rescue homes or other facilities for the reception, care treatment and security of such animals.
  • To promote humane behaviour towards such animals by providing them with appropriate care, protection, treatment and security and to educate the public in the welfare of and the prevention of cruelty and suffering amongst such animals.
  • To benefit those persons whose lives are enhanced by working donkeys and mules by improving the health and welfare of such animals.
  • To bring enjoyment and pleasure to enrich the lives of children, young people and adults who have additional needs, special educational needs, disabilities or illnesses in order to enhance their education and make their lives better through appropriate provision of facilities for riding, handling or coming into contact with such animals.’

The Donkey Sanctuary in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham was opened in 1994 and is a not for profit organisation. At present they have 21 donkeys at their centre. They provide Donkey Assisted Therapy to children with additional needs and provide outreach visits to hospices and residential homes. The services that they offer are free and the charity relies on donations to fund these activities and services.

Sara Gee who is a riding instructor and based at the Birmingham Donkey Assisted Therapy centre, told Autism Daily Newscast.

“Our centre in Birmingham is one of 6 UK centres in the country. All are part of The Donkey Sanctuary and all offer donkey assisted therapy (DAT) to special needs in their local communities. The locations are Belfast, Birmingham, Ivybridge (Plymouth), Leeds, Manchester and Sidmouth (Devon), DAT centres are open daily to visitors between 10am – 3pm.”

The centre in Birmingham is staffed by 8 full time and 4 part time members of staff and has around 30 volunteers who give up their time to help in any way that they can. The centre would not be able to operate without them.

CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation
CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation

They state on their website:

‘We provide donkey assisted therapy to approximately 180 children every week. These children have a wide range of additional needs and disabilities. We bring enjoyment and pleasure into their lives and our work helps with their co-ordination and overall development, as well as giving them the satisfaction that comes with the achievement of learning new skills.’

Children who benefit from Donkey Assisted Therapy are children on the autistic spectrum. There is a blog post over on The Donkey Sanctuary website which tells of the importance of using Donkey Assisted Therapy to engage with children on the autistic spectrum.

‘Then a lady came over and said that she was with a party of autistic children (one being her son) on a trip out and could she bring them over. Autistic children like to touch things, as a symptom of autism is that all the senses are heightened. The lady explained to me that many of the children didn’t know what a donkey was, never mind actually meeting one! We said that of course she could bring them over.

Despite screams and squeals, lots of little fingers ruffling their coats, faces pressed against their flanks and many hugs and kisses China Boy and Uncle B behaved impeccably, standing quietly completely understanding that these little people ‘were special’. The parents and carers were so grateful for our time; it was a very humbling experience.’

Sara Gee talks of the benefits for autistic children

“For autistic children we find the benefits are many. Initially the experience of stroking our donkeys can be fraught, patience whilst waiting for a ride is needed and it’s important from a safety angle that instructions are listened to and followed. Even the routine of wearing a riding hat in order to ride can be beneficial. The simple aim of the therapy is to teach children to sit quietly and kindly on their donkey and enjoy the ride whilst taking part in exercises that encourage listening and following, colour recognition, counting and making choices. In addition if the children are receptive, basic riding skills such as mounting, dismounting and holding the reins are taught.”

The following is taken from a case study of a 14 year old autistic boy named Alex, from The Donkey Sanctuary’s Spanish sanctuary El Refugio del Burrito:

CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation
CC BY by The Donkey SanctuaryFederation

“He began attending our Donkey Assisted Riding Therapy Sessions at Córdoba Zoo two years ago. Alex was a very energetic, yet a very shy boy. He was always afraid of engaging in any kind of new activity, and was reluctant with physical contact… until he met his new Therapists. Norman, Lucky, Carmelo and Freddie are not what you’d expect to find when going for therapy- they walk on four legs, are completely covered in fur and have hooves instead of feet! But nobody can teach what they teach, nor help like they help. Although he was very reluctant to start with, Alex was gradually engaging more and more in the Riding Therapy Sessions, whether it was riding on a donkey or on the cart. He doesn’t shy away from having new experiences anymore and has become very pro-active and confident.”

The Donkey Sanctuary is well worth a visit for any autistic child and their family. All of the DAT centres have holiday clubs and a Saturday club which are open to the public. All special needs children are welcome to attend as well as their siblings. Sara Gee ends by saying,

“These clubs are the ideal opportunity for parents and children to meet other local families and have a chat, refreshments are usually available and the centre facilities can be used by those wishing to stay for a while. The dates of these events are published on the Donkey Sanctuary web site”

More information about The Donkey Sanctuary can be found on their website
Information about the Birmingham Centre can be found here
You can follow Birmingham Donkey Sanctuary on Facebook
and on twitter @BhamDonkeys where they provide a donkey’s eye view of donkeys, their world and the therapy that they offer.
You can read The Donkey Sanctuary’s Blog here

About the author 

Jo Worgan

Jo Worgan is a published author, writer and blogger. She has a degree in English Literature. She writes about life with her youngest son who is on the autistic spectrum. Jo tweets (@mummyworgan) and is also a freelance columnist for the Lancaster Guardian. ‘My Life with Tom, Living With Autism‘ is her second book and a culmination of her blog posts, and available on Kindle now, along with her first book, Life on the Spectrum. The Preschool years.

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