Donkey Park owner Steve Stiert, walks among his donkeys in Ulster Park, New York. (AP Photo)
- Steve Stiert mission is to protect donkeys from mistreatment and neglect
- The retired IBM software engineer offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs
- He spreads the word about their virtues as peaceful stress-relieving animals
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.
Donkey Park is one such creation by Steve Stiert, who sought a new direction after his job as a software engineer for IBM who was eliminated six years ago. He first heard about donkeys from his daughter in veterinary school and fell in love with them. Now hes devoting his life to providing an opportunity for people to interact with donkeys and experience their calming presence.
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.
Theyre 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.
Were 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, theyre actually mild-mannered, intelligent and affectionate, donkey advocates say.