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The healing power of miniature donkeys

25th Mehefin 2020

by Richard Jinman

Senior Creative Editor

Sarah McPherson's work with a team of diminutive donkeys has been recognised with a National Lottery Local Legend award

Sarah McPherson with one of her miniature donkeys at her home in South Norfolk

Sarah McPherson has taken her miniature donkeys on visits to care homes, special schools and secure psychiatric hospitals and in each case the reaction to the gentle, affectionate animals is the same. “We make people happy,” she says. “And for people, particularly those in the later stages of dementia, that’s so important because it can be such a lonely place to be.”

Demand for visits from the diminutive donkeys has soared since Sarah started Miniature Donkeys for Wellbeing - or Mini Donks for short – at her home in South Norfolk in 2017. Nowadays, Sarah, two or three of her donkeys and several members of her team of 27 volunteers, make as many as six visits a week, travelling in purpose-built van nicknamed the Donkmobile.

On some trips the donkeys remain in the grounds of the care home or special school where they are petted, groomed and led around by their new friends. But if someone is unable or unwilling to leave their room, Sarah takes Saffron, Bo Peep, Pippin, Pixie or year-old Millie inside the building and up to their bedside.

The first time Sarah took a donkey inside a care home was during a visit to her parents who had both been diagnosed with dementia and were living in a facility in Norfolk. “Mum wasn’t fit enough to come to my house so I took the donkeys to see her,” she explains. “Then a nurse said ‘there’s a lady in Room 10 who would love this, but she’s bed bound’. I said, ‘let’s see if they’ll go in’. Bo Peep and Pixie obliged by strolling through the front door and nuzzling the bed-bound woman. “The lady couldn’t believe it,” says Sarah. “The smile on her face was just extraordinary.”

Sarah with Millie, her youngest miniature donkey

Sarah’s efforts to bring joy to the hundreds of people visited by Mini Donks since 2017 have been recognised with a prestigious Local Legend Award as part of the 25th Birthday National Lottery Awards. Presented by former Strictly winner Ore Oduba, on BBC 1 on November 19, 2019, the Local Legend Award recognises a person that has made an outstanding contribution to their local area. A panel made up of representatives from the National Lottery family selected the winners.

Sarah acquired her first miniature donkeys as pets. “We’d lost a dog and went to a dog breeder to get an Italian Spinone puppy,” she recalls. “We came back with two donkeys and one of the breeder’s stud dogs. The dog had had the donkeys around him forever so they came as part of the package.”

She first realised the affectionate animals might have a therapeutic role during a particularly difficult phase of her life. Her mother’s dementia had worsened and she suspected her father also had dementia. Sarah spent her weekends at her parents’ home in Leicester – a six-hour round trip from Norfolk – and when her father was diagnosed with both Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease she found herself struggling to cope. “The other thing that was happening was that I was going through the menopause which had its own challenges in terms of mood,” she says. “I spent so much time being angry and frightened, resentful and guilty. I’d engage carers, set it all up and then I’d be in a meeting at work and get a call that a carer wasn’t available that day. It got very grim.”

When she returned from a particularly trying visit to her parents, Sarah often sat in the stable with her donkeys and noticed their quiet, affectionate company helped her relax.

She noticed too that her mother responded positively when she was petting or feeding the animals. “When mum came over for Sunday dinner and was out in the yard with the donkeys, I’d get a bit of her back,” she says. “Mum was evacuated in the war to a village where her grandparents lived and when she was with the donkeys she’d start talking about that part of her life.”

Why does contact with the animals have such positive effects? “They’re cute, attractive animals and if you have a little donkey’s face against yours you smile and relax,” says Sarah. “That tends to trigger memories – happy memories.”

Sarah’s mother died in April 2017. By then, she was determined to devote herself to using her miniature donkeys to help others. She handed in her notice on the Monday after her mother’s wake and began the daunting process of setting up a social enterprise from scratch.

Fortunately, the idea of Mini Donks struck a chord with just about everyone who heard it. The Norfolk Show offered her a free stall to promote the concept and an artist called Anna Pugh designed a Mini Donks logo for free. When Sarah handed out leaflets at the Woolly Weekend festival, a woman who worked for the South Norfolk Clinical Commissioning Group asked if she could mention Mini Donks to the 85 care homes that she oversaw. “She sent an email out on Monday morning and the phone didn’t stop ringing,” says Sarah.

The phone has kept ringing ever since, presenting a challenge to a small organisation staffed mostly by volunteers. A £10,000 Awards for All grant from the National Lottery helped pay for the bespoke Donkmobile, but Sarah admits she was almost out of cash when Mini Donks was awarded almost £50,000 as a winner of the National Lottery’s People’s Projects. “It put us on an even keel and made us sustainable,” she says.

How does she feel about being named as one of the National Lottery’s Local Legends? “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” she says. “None of this has been just me, but I’m very, very proud.”

She describes Mini Donks as “the best thing I’ve ever done. I look back now and think how on earth did that happen?”