As I got off of the bus at the Donkey Sanctuary and walked up the driveway to the barns, the first thing I noticed were horses wearing colorful coats. They call them “rugs.” Not having an equine background, this was a new word for me. One horse wore a white rug with giant red, white and blue polka dots. Another had a blue rug with unicorns on it that a volunteer bought her as a special present (which is pretty much the sweetest thing ever)!
I was looking for Julia, the volunteer coordinator who was my contact. I found her in the office and we immediately set out to the barns so I could meet everyone and see what they do there. She has the unique job of training both the people and the animals at the sanctuary and was very welcoming. I’m a bit of an introvert and felt a little nervous and shy, not knowing what to expect. Since this was the first sanctuary I was visiting as part of my new life’s direction, I wasn’t sure how to present my mission to them. I found nothing but kindness and encouragement in the staff and volunteers there. Not only was I really impressed with the people working and volunteering there, lets talk donkeys! Holy moly. All their animals are rescued or abandoned and the sanctuary provides a forever home on 55 acres of beautiful countryside. They are so well taken care of. I would love to be a donkey living there. I arrived during breakfast time and they take care of over 90 donkeys, each with very different personalities and tastes and medical needs.
Their staff and volunteers keep busy and the sanctuary runs like clockwork with everyone playing an important role. There are medications to be distributed sometimes needing carrots hollowed out to hide pills, animals that need to be fed alone because they eat more slowly and others might try to finish their food, still others need to be tied on the other side of the stall so they didn’t argue over food. It is well organized and very impressive.
I was surprised to learn that donkeys have “special friends” that they have to be with at all times. It is usually another donkey, but sometimes is a shetland pony, a mule, a goat, or even a horse.
If a donkey goes to the hospital, his friend goes too. I witnessed donkeys getting really upset if their friend was on another side of a fence, even if they could still touch. This really pulls at the heartstrings and made me think differently about their overall behavior. I never knew that best friends were such a powerful thing for donkeys.
I spent my first full day volunteering with Julia as she worked through various behavior training. She had been spending time with Blakey, working to help him gain confidence around people. He had been abandoned in a field in Norfolk with his special friend Olive and their baby, Barbara. He was a bit skittish, but with Julia’s guidance I was able to establish his trust and he even let me brush him.
There is an area called sand school which has a big area for training. I was excited to see there was a training course already set up. After we returned Blakey, we took some Shetland ponies on a walk for some exercise and took them into the sand school to go through the agility course.
I had so much fun learning how to lead them. They are just adorable and eager to learn? really enjoy the exercise?. Later in the day we took one of the biggest donkeys called Prentice out through the course and did some target training and clicker training. It was fascinating. I am very familiar with this type of training in dogs but never really thought about donkeys going through the same kind of training.
Throughout the day as stalls needed cleaning, I got to witness the donkey herd move to a different location. Despite being in such a large group, I really could see their unique personalities as some would run while others would dawdle or try to go a different direction.
The next day I spent with Laura, the farm manager. She is so kind and patient and explained so much about donkey welfare. She really loves those donkeys and I am so glad that they are in her care. I went on rounds with her to give medications and change bandages. Later in the day the veterinarian came to check on a few donkeys with health issues.
Then it was dental time! Several of the donkeys got a sedative to keep them happy and calm, and along with their special friend, came to the area of the barn to see the veterinarian. I was fascinated as the dental work began as I have little experience with large animals. I’ve done a lot of dental cleaning on dogs and cats, but haven’t had the opportunity to see how equine dental care worked. There is a special halter the donkeys wear so the vet can really look and feel around in their mouth. If donkeys can’t chew correctly, their teeth make sharp points that hurt them and can restrict their ability to extract nutrients properly. Donkey dental health is extremely important. And it’s expensive too – you can donate to their healthcare needs by following the link. https://www.iowdonkeysanctuary.org/how-to-donate/
My last day was a mix of things: feeding, mucking out stalls, talking with the people who volunteer, helping to train donkeys to get into the donkey truck so they will be comfortable if they need to go to the hospital or on an outreach trip.
The donkeys also help the community on the Isle of Wight providing a positive experience wherever they go. They provide happiness and a calming effect when visiting nursing homes and schools and also educate people about donkeys. Learn more about their donkey therapy programs by following the link. https://www.iowdonkeysanctuary.org/donkey-therapy/
The weather was cold and rainy when I visited and on my last day it was finally sunny. The donkeys were thrilled when they got to go to the pasture and they had the zoomies, running all over the place! Witnessing their happiness and freedom in the fields was the perfect end to my time at the sanctuary.
THE PEOPLE OF THE SANCTUARY
I loved Julia’s perspective on the volunteers. Instead of focusing on what volunteers can do for the sanctuary, she likes to think of what the sanctuary can do for volunteers. She highlights the friendships, emotional support, and confidence gained by volunteers and how very special it is for her to be a part of that. They also work with special needs volunteers who really seem to gain a lot from the experience.
The Donkey Sanctuary employees are very close. She noted that the death of a donkey can be very difficult for the volunteers and staff alike and they really make sure to support each other. I noticed in a few sanctuaries I visited in England, that around 10:30am was generally tea time. This is an important time where people slow down and connect with each other over tea. It was also an opportunity to simply watch and enjoy the donkeys and give them some special attention and love.
HOW TO HAVE YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE HERE
I asked Julia if people could volunteer, much like I did, if they happened to be on vacation. She said it’s definitely a possibility and if you’re interested, email directly through their website contact form. https://www.iowdonkeysanctuary.org/contact-us/ There are plenty of opportunities to help. They do a lot of pop-up events, especially in the summer, and they need help with manning those events. They also need volunteers to help in the barns and at the cafe, as well as offsite events such as outreach and school events. Though they don’t have accommodations for volunteers at this point, the island has several AirBnb options and the bus system takes you directly there.
If you want to simply visit the sanctuary, it’s free and open to the public most days, weather permitting. There is a little cafe and gift shop and you can “adopt” a donkey or two while you are there (now also online!) https://www.iowdonkeysanctuary.org/product-category/adoptions/?product_count=90&product_orderby=name. You get a certificate of adoption along with a photo and two newsletters in the year of adoption. People can also visit with their adopted donkeys.
I sat down with Julia to ask what would help them the most. They would like to be less financially reliant on tourism. At the time of my visit in January of 2019, adoptions and the donation bucket at the entrance, along with the donkey experiences and activities offered at the sanctuary are among their largest sources of revenue. If you would like to donate to the sanctuary or adopt a donkey that would be fantastic. They have a really fun social media presence as well too!
I have created a series of paintings highlighting four of the donkeys that live at the Isle of Wight Donkey Sanctuary with a variety of art products based on these paintings. I’m donating a percentage of profits from these products to help the sanctuary. Visit my shop at www.naturalhistoryart.etsy.com
The Isle of Wight is one of the more fascinating places I have been. I only got to spend about 5 days there in the winter and I hope to visit again in the summer. It is a lovely little island with a lot of interesting animal-focused activities. The people I met were all so inviting and friendly. Something about this sanctuary really got into my heart and I hope you can experience that as well, if not in person, then through the photos, paintings, and stories I have shared.
If you have any questions for me regarding the sanctuary or travel tips, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to answer them. If you visit the sanctuary, please give my donkey friends lots of hugs and tag me in your photos! I would love to see you enjoying this magical, wonderful place.