For much of the world, donkeys are beasts of burden, but the only job of the long-eared residents of Donkey Park in New York state is to nuzzle, bray and beguile the diverse groups of people who find comfort in their company.
Donkey Park, located 80 miles north of New York City, is the creation of Steve Stiert, who sought a new direction after his job as a software engineer for IBM was eliminated six years ago.
He first heard about donkeys from his daughter, who went to veterinary school, and he soon fell in love with them.
Now he’s devoting his life to providing an opportunity for people to interact with donkeys and experience their calming presence.
“Donkeys resonate with who I am,” says 59-year-old Steve, whose equine epiphany came after 26 years glued to a computer screen.
“They brought out this caring, sensitive person I had pushed to the background while trying to be successful.”
Steve has 11 donkeys, a mule and a donkey-zebra hybrid that live in a neat, 1.5-acre mini-ranch at his home in Ulster Park.
He takes them to schools, nursing homes and events for children with disabilities.
He also teaches donkey husbandry and has an 800-member Meetup group for fans that features hikes with donkeys.
“They’re great stress sponges,” Steve says. “A lot of people come up from the city, travel long distances. When they come out here you can just see the stress melting away from them.”
Employing donkeys for animal-assisted therapy is gaining popularity among groups dedicated to protecting them from mistreatment.
The Donkey Sanctuary, based in Devon, offers donkey-assisted therapy programmes for children recovering from cancer, victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable people.
“We’re not providing therapy for the trauma but for developing life skills,” says Caron Whaley, therapy director at the Devon sanctuary.
While donkeys are often portrayed in popular culture as gloomy or ill-tempered, they’re actually mild-mannered, intelligent and affectionate, donkey advocates say.
“Some people come with the preconceived notion that they kick, they bite, they’re stubborn, they’re ornery,” Steve says. “None of those things are true at all.”
Steve bought his first six donkeys from breeders but then started taking in rescues.
While he’s registered as a non-profit enterprise, Steve relies mostly on his own savings to care for the donkeys.
He doesn’t do birthday parties, nativity scenes or other money-making events, saying: “All our services are free. We don’t hire donkeys out.”