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Therapy donkeys make virtual visits during lockdown

The owners of a farm whose donkeys’ visits to care homes and schools have been curtailed by the coronavirus lockdown have been offering virtual donkey therapy instead.

Amanda Wallace and her son Robert told H&H it has been hard to describe what their business Kinedale Donkeys, in Co. Down, Northern Ireland, is, having undertaken “weird and wonderful things” over the years, but that the equine therapy has come to the fore.

“We have seen first-hand the benefits donkeys have on improving mental health and wellbeing; our donkeys have helped our family through some really tough times, and the nursing home staff tell us of the benefit they see after a visit,” Amanda said.

“Our main ethos is to educate people about donkeys and to share our love for our animals. Donkeys are deeply misunderstood creatures, often the butt of a joke or used as an insult. They are more than a stubborn field annoyance!”

Robert said the family’s involvement with donkeys started on his first birthday, when the neighbours gave him a foal born the day before he was. This started a lifelong passion, and the family now has 24 donkeys.

The visits started when a nearby care home asked the family if it was possible to bring a donkey – “ we thought it would just be in the garden but they opened the door and said ‘come on in’,” Robert said – and as Denis the donkey had already been on stage in an opera in Dublin, as an extra in a market scene, he was the man for the job.

“The nursing home was then a step down from the opera house, and he was fine; they really took to him.

“There’s something about Denis; you might worry about him standing on people’s feet but he picks his up round them, and he even goes in lifts to see those who can’t leave their bedrooms, and puts his head in their laps.”

Amanda and Robert then started taking donkeys to visit schools, and patients with dementia, as often the sight helped them relieve happy memories.

“It’s quite humbling and emotional to hear a lady who never talks to anyone has asked to see Denis again,” Amanda said. “There’s a lady who’s 102 and blind, and she can tell which donkey’s come to visit by the feel.”

Just before lockdown, the Wallaces and their donkeys had also been offering individual therapy sessions, but everything had to stop owing to the virus.

So instead, they started taking and sharing daily pictures of the donkeys. When feedback to this was positive, they started recording videos, which were played on big screens in the nursing homes to much appreciation, and also driving the donkeys to pick up equine and human food, so local people could see them at work.

“Now we cannot go to nursing homes, we wondered how we could still bring them the joy and much needed therapy,” Amanda said. “It struck us to record sessions from the farm, we set a date and time that we would premier the video and contacted all our nursing homes and more to let them know this was happening. We intended to record the donkeys and tell our viewers about them as we would in a home.

“Before going live we brought over our two sheep and the newly hatched ducklings.

“We now are planning weekly or biweekly recordings, showing the donkeys working the land to grow vegetables, how we sheared the sheep before the start of summer and much more.

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“It has been a fantastic experience, realising that a small donkey farm in Northern Ireland can actually do something for others without the luxury of leaving the yard.

“We’re fortunate – we can go out for hours and not be on a road, and we’ve got our animals – and it’s nice to be able to share that on screen.

“My dad used to say if you’ve a roof over your head, food on the table and a fire in the hearth, you’re rich. But I think the fact you can open your door and have fresh air and green fields makes you a millionaire.”

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