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Templepatrick charity and its friendly furry residents are helping those struggling with mental health

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Lorraine Nelson with Hope, Charity, and Faith

Lorraine Nelson with Hope, Charity, and Faith

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Christine Ramsey feeding donkeys at the sanctuary

Christine Ramsey feeding donkeys at the sanctuary

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

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Lorraine Nelson with Hope, Charity, and Faith

With their huge ears, snuffling noses and low fluffy bellies, donkeys might not be the first helpers that spring to mind when you need therapy.

Indeed, the world’s most famous donkey, Eeyore, was often down in the dumps and in need of a little emotional support himself.

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Equine assistant Christine Ramsey of The Donkey Sanctuary with Moroney and Marko

Equine assistant Christine Ramsey of The Donkey Sanctuary with Moroney and Marko

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Equine assistant Christine Ramsey of The Donkey Sanctuary with Moroney and Marko

But in a barn in Co Antrim there are 25 furry therapists just waiting to help people in crisis struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

And spending time with these beautiful equines through ‘donkey-assisted activities’ is already aiding local schoolchildren and teenagers.

It’s all part of three initiatives by The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast, based near Templepatrick.

The centre marked its 10th anniversary last year in a low-key way, having been forced to close its doors for around 18 months due to Covid.

But it came back with a bang, recently launching a trio of programmes to merge improving the welfare of its donkeys with boosting the welfare of its human visitors.

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Lorraine Nelson onsite in Templepatrick

Lorraine Nelson onsite in Templepatrick

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Lorraine Nelson onsite in Templepatrick

“This is a really exciting time for us,” says centre manager Lorraine Nelson, who has been with The Donkey Sanctuary for a decade.

“Our staff aren’t trained therapists — it’s the donkeys who are the therapists. We just stand back and allow them to behave naturally. They do the rest.

“We’re helping all sorts of people, from adults struggling with their mental health to young people who have come through cancer. Spending time with our donkeys can be helpful for so many different reasons.

“We don’t do any ridden work with our donkeys. It’s all about having them behave as naturally as possible and allowing the humans and donkeys to interact as equals, with mutual consent.”

The three new programmes are Donkey Facilitated Learning, the Donkey Management Programme and Wellbeing With Donkeys.

The first two focus on developing life skills and boosting confidence as people learn about the donkeys’ needs and how to care for them. The third helps people practise mindfulness around the donkeys.

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Lorraine Nelson of The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast

Lorraine Nelson of The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Lorraine Nelson of The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast

The sanctuary has started working with two local secondary schools, which refer pupils who are vulnerable or have additional educational needs.

The schemes are open to adults too, with a referral from a GP, social worker or other support worker, and the eight-week courses are all free to the participants, funded by the charity.

“What we can offer people during our donkey-assisted therapy sessions is a really nurturing environment,” explains Lorraine. “They tend to mirror the emotions of our visitors — how you’re feeling will be reflected back by the donkey. People learn to be calmer and more mindful in their presence.

“Our programmes also cover topics like nutrition and care. It’s very hands-on and gives people the chance to be outdoors. These programmes are brand new, but, as we roll them out, we’ll be studying the impact they have on the participants at the end, and also six months further down the line, so we can gauge the lasting effects.

“We also measure the donkeys’ behaviour before and after the sessions so we can keep track of the impact on the welfare of the donkeys too.”

The centre is just one of a number across the UK run by international charity The Donkey Sanctuary. In addition to its donkey-assisted activities, it is also open to the public every Saturday and on the first Sunday of the month, with booking in advance online currently advised.

Lorraine says the staff have received a growing number of calls from the public about donkeys in distress and believes Covid has had an impact.

“We’ve seen some terrible cruelty over the years,” she recalls. “Three of our donkeys, Faith, Hope and Charity, arrived with us in 2018 with their feet so badly overgrown that their hooves were curled up and they could hardly walk.

“We also get a lot of calls from people who’ve got a donkey or two and just don’t know how to look after them. A lot of people don’t realise donkeys are prolific breeders, so if you have an uncastrated male in your herd you’ll soon be in a pickle.

“We have welfare advisers who step in to help. Our goal is to try to keep the donkeys in their homes and educate owners wherever possible.”

Twenty of the sanctuary’s current 25 inhabitants are available for rehoming, meaning they are looking for people in Northern Ireland to take them on under the charity’s Guardianship Scheme.

“The charity keeps ownership of the donkeys and we’ll always take them back if circumstances change,” explains Lorraine. “Donkeys can live for 40 years, so it’s a big commitment.

“We like to adopt them out in pairs or threesomes, because donkeys form strong bonds and need company. If people come to us looking to adopt donkeys, we put together a ‘shaping plan’ and work with them over a number of weeks, letting them get to know their donkeys and learn how to care for them.

“If you have space in your heart and your home for a couple of donkeys, we’d love to hear from you and you’ll be supported every step of the way.”

It costs the Donkey Sanctuary £2,000 every year to keep each donkey at the centre, which covers feed, bedding, medical costs and the farrier. Internationally, The Donkey Sanctuary is one of the largest equine welfare charities in the world and has almost 7,000 donkeys in its care across the UK and Europe.

It also offers programmes to improve the welfare of donkeys and mules working in agriculture, industry and transportation in countries such as Peru, India, Kenya, Ethiopia and Brazil. Visitors can support the sanctuary by making donations and there’s a gift adoption scheme for £3 a month.

www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/visit-us/belfast


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