Beasts unburden: Donkeys at mini ranch help people de-stress

In this July 30, 2018 photo, miniature donkeys eat hay at Donkey Park in Ulster Park, N.Y. Retired IBM software engineer Steve Stiert offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect. Stiert hopes the park will help spread the word about donkey's virtues as peaceful stress-relieving animals. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
In this July 30, 2018 photo, Steve Stiert, owner of Donkey Park, fastens a harness on one of his 9 miniature donkeys at Donkey Park in Ulster Park, N.Y. The retired IBM software engineer offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect. Stiert helps spread the word about their virtues as peaceful stress-relieving animals. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
In this July 30, 2018, photo Donkey Park visitor Evan Oster leads a miniature donkey through an obstacle course as volunteer Patti Lundgren looks on, at Donkey Park in Ulster Park, N.Y. Retired software engineer Steve Stiert created Donkey Park at his home to provide free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect. Stiert's park helps spread the word about their virtues as peaceful stress-relieving animals. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
In this June 30, 2018 photo, Donkey Park owner Steve Stiert, walks among his donkeys in Ulster Park, N.Y. The retired IBM software engineer offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect. Stiert spreads the word about their virtues as peaceful stress-relieving animals. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)
In this July 30, 2018 photo, Donkey Park owner Steve Stiert, interacts with one of his miniature donkeys at Donkey Park in Ulster Park, N.Y. The retired IBM software engineer offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect. Stiert wants to spread the word about donkeys as peaceful stress-relieving animals. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

ULSTER PARK, N.Y. — In most of the world, donkeys are beasts of burden, but the only job of the long-eared denizens of Donkey Park is to nuzzle, bray and beguile the diverse group of people who find comfort in their company.

Donkey Park 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 in veterinary school and 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 the 59-year-old Stiert, 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."

Stiert has 11 donkeys, a mule and a donkey-zebra hybrid that live in a neat, 1.5-acre (0.6-hectare) mini ranch at his home in Ulster Park, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of New York City. 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 that features hikes with donkeys.

"They're great stress sponges," Stiert 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, England, offers donkey-assisted therapy programs 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 sanctuary.

Unlike how donkeys are 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," Stiert says. "None of those things are true at all."

Every week, The Arc of Ulster-Greene, an organization serving people with intellectual disabilities, takes a group of adult clients to Donkey Park to brush the donkeys, lead them through an obstacle course and feed them hay. The donkeys, nine of them only waist-high, readily approach visitors and linger to have their long ears stroked or their rumps scratched.

"If I'm in a bad mood I come out here and they help me relax," says Tom Cossaboom, an Arc client. "They're friendly and calm."

Stiert bought his first six donkeys from breeders but then started taking in rescues. While he's registered as a nonprofit, he relies mostly on his own savings to care for the donkeys. He doesn't do birthday parties, nativity scenes or other money-making events.

"All our services are free," Stiert says. "We don't hire donkeys out."

Patti Lundgren says she looked for Meetup groups when she moved to the area and was intrigued by the donkey hikes. Now she regularly drives 45 minutes to volunteer at Donkey Park.

"There's such a gentle energy about them," Lundgren says. "I always leave here feeling really good. The dirtier I am, the better I feel. Ah, donkey therapy, donkey love."

You may also interested in

Boston building with Citgo sign sold;...

Aug 12, 2016

A building that hosts Boston's iconic Citgo sign has been sold to a local developer known for being...

Hotels in 10 states and DC may have been hit by...

Aug 15, 2016

Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott and Westin hotels in 10 states and the District of Columbia may have been...

Tesla: Removal of 'Autopilot' from Chinese site a...

Aug 15, 2016

Tesla says the term "Autopilot" was mistakenly removed from the electric car maker's website for...

Southern California fire burns at least a dozen...

Aug 17, 2016

A wildfire broke out Tuesday and spread at a staggering pace in every direction through...

2 injured, fire contained on docked Tahoe paddle...

Aug 17, 2016

Fire ripped through the second deck of a docked tourist cruise boat under repair at Lake Tahoe on...

The Next Daily is the new generation of online publication, serving you the most recent discoveries made in science and technology on a daily basis. At The Next Daily, we believe in the power of consistent and reliable reporting to inspire and move mankind forward.

Contact us: sales[at]thenextdaily.com