The less SEO-friendly title of this post should have been “How I found myself in the English countryside wearing a donkey on my head”, but that’s not really very searchable. In reality, it was actually the opposite – the donkey was using my head as a comfortable chin rest. But it took several hours of persistence on my part to get that stage, starting with a chance meeting in a barnyard.
As a slight fan of donkeys (in actuality – a big fan), I’d been eager to visit The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon for some time. After stellar recommendations by family and friends, it became my only must-visit during the trek to the UK earlier this summer and lived up my expectations – rolling hills, fresh air, lots of good walks and a boatload of friendly donkeys.
The world’s largest donkey and mule charity organization, The Donkey Sanctuary aims to protect and promote the welfare of these animals worldwide, and is open 365 days a year. Since it began, the organization has provided 14,500 donkeys and mules with a sanctuary for life and consists of eight farms in total. Only one is open to the public – Slade House Farm – which is where we found ourselves on a warm May afternoon.
We began our day with stop in the main yard, where donkeys wander freely and meet and greet guests. There were lots of people fussing over the animals, but my eyes wandered to a shy donkey leaning into a corner on the other side of the yard. “This one,” I thought to myself, “needs a hug.”
As it turned out, Teddy the donkey initially thought otherwise. He seemed pretty content with standing by himself, away from the crowds. I gave him a little scratch and then left him alone, appreciating that as an introvert he clearly needed some quiet time.
We wandered the fields, visiting the various donkeys on-site including the delightfully shaggy Poitous. It was a beautifully clear day and you could see and smell the ocean from parts of the trails. As we wandered past fences donkeys would mosey on over, happy to greet us and linger for a hug and some attention (and photos – what photogenic animals! They clearly practice their posing). But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about Teddy and was determined to give him a proper hug.
Back in the yard, I made a beeline for that donkey. He was tucked away in a barn, but ventured over to see me and was more receptive this time around. He leaned his head in and I gave him a small hug, scratching his ears gently. My Mum, sensing a good photo opportunity, grabbed my camera and I knelt down to ensure that I wasn’t blocking Teddy’s face. As she set the camera up, I suddenly became aware of a large amount of sniffing going on around my head and then suddenly a very warm sensation – and realized that my blonde locks were dangerously close to becoming an afternoon snack for Teddy. Thankfully, he instead chose to plop his chin down and pose for the photo, and that’s how I found myself with a donkey using me as a resting space.
Following our visit, I contacted The Donkey Sanctuary for more information about Teddy the charmer. Public Relations Manager Suzi Cretney shared that he came from a farm with his mum, Clara. His old owner used to take him to Palm Sunday services at their local church and was, said Cretney, “always very well behaved”. When Clara passed away, he was paired with a popular donkey named Nelly but since her passing he’d taken to the single life.
“When his legs are being brushed, he loves nothing more than resting his head on the grooms back – making it difficult for them to stand up!” said Cretney. Which, in retrospect, explained Teddy’s cheeky enjoyment of my head.
Want to bring a little something for the donkeys but aren’t sure what they’d like? Cretney advises guests to bring carrots or ginger biscuits, which you can drop off in a collection bucket at the Visitors’ Centre. If you were as surprised as I was about the biscuits, it’s because they’re helpful for the vets when dishing out some of the “less palatable” medications (they also find them quite tasty!). As tempting as it might be to feed the donkeys your treats, it’s easy to mistake your fingers for snacks – and it also ensures that all the animals get a fair share of the goodies.
Check out their website for more details and to help plan your visit. Special thanks to The Sanctuary for providing the additional information and lovely photograph!