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A Hee-Hawww-Some Day Out
The Donkey Sanctuary (Devon)
Member Name: Enkaypee
The Donkey Sanctuary (Devon)
Advantages: The donkeys! As well as the prices, the way the donkeys are cared for, a generally great day out
Disadvantages: All outdoors, you're not allowed to feed the donkeys on your average visit :(
Mr. E and I love donkeys, so when we went on holiday last week and saw there was a donkey sanctuary near where we were staying, we immediately knew it was somewhere we had to visit.
Both entry and parking are free, although they do welcome donations, so even if you don't enjoy it you won't have wasted anything. We enjoyed it so much that we agreed we would even have felt comfortable paying around £10 for entry to The Donkey Sanctuary, as it would have been much better value for money than some other attractions we visited!
The car park includes a designated disabled parking area, as well as a coach park, so everyone is catered for.
The Donkey Sanctuary is open 365 days a year from 9am until dusk, so you can visit any day and every day if you so wish. However, as most of it is outdoors, you may enjoy your visit more if you choose a warm or sunny day, rather than a cold or rainy one. We visited when it was cool but sunny and thoroughly enjoyed our time, but probably would have had a more miserable visit had it been raining.
Your first port of call when you arrive should be the yard. If you're in a good mood this should cement it, but if you're not so happy, on entering the yard you can't help but smile and be cheerier.
The yard is a small, concrete-floored, fenced in enclosure which the public is allowed to enter. There are several pens edging the yard which the donkeys sleep in, and they are free to walk in and out between the pens and the yard. This is the only time you really get to be up close and personal with the donkeys, and it's a real treat. They're so friendly and will happily walk over for a stroke and a cuddle, and they're not aggressive or anything (unless you annoy them, of course!). There is always a member of The Donkey Sanctuary staff in the yard as well, so if either you or the donkeys start getting nervous they're there to intervene and calm you all down. They won't intervene unnecessarily and will let you get on with getting to know the donkeys, but are there to help if you need it. You are allowed to stay in the yard as long as you wish, but once you've met all of those donkeys and had a few photos it may be time to go and see some others!
The only donkeys which they put in the yard are ones which are very friendly and like human contact, so you're not likely to get in any sticky situations with them. When we visited there were even a few young children running around the yard, but the donkeys didn't seem that phased at all. The staff have put a sign up near the entrance to the yard telling you how to approach the donkeys and giving you a few body language signals - such as if their heads are dipped they're probably resting, or if their ears are back they could be getting annoyed - which is really useful as it helped me a few times! In addition, they run a rota system for which donkeys are in the yard each day, so don't worry about anything being cruel to them as they do get a fair split between being in the yard and their own relaxing, quiet time. The rest of the donkeys which they do put in the yard but which are having their quiet days are kept in a barn which leads out to a field. You are allowed to view each of these, and if the donkeys feel sociable they may approach you at the fence, but that's as close as you're allowed to get.
Throughout the rest of the sanctuary, you are not allowed to enter any of the pens or fields, although you can view them from the edge. As I've said, if you're lucky and the donkeys are in a good mood they may come over to say hello, but for the most part there probably won't be much interaction between you and the donkeys. However, this shouldn't detract from your visit, as it's still lovely to see the donkeys living comfortably.
The staff at The Donkey Sanctuary obviously care very much for the donkeys and look after them very well, as there are even donkey hospitals where the sick donkeys can be cared for! When we visited, there was one poor donkey who had an eye infection and was obviously in the process of receiving treatment for it, and it tugged at my heartstrings to see how it evidently just wanted loving and looking after. Other donkeys in the donkey hospital had foot problems, and there were even a few blind donkeys, so the sanctuary are obviously doing wonders for providing the donkeys with the best possible lives.
As I mentioned previously, most of what there is to see at The Donkey Sanctuary is outdoors. I don't know exactly how large the plot of land is on which the sanctuary is situated, but I could tell that it covers scores of acres. Although this makes for a great way to while away many hours, for people with mobility problems like myself it means you will probably only get to see a fraction of the sanctuary and the donkeys they look after. From what I saw, it appeared that the vast majority of the paths are wheelchair and pushchair friendly, which means if you do own either of these you might be able to see a bit more of things. If, however, you use a wheelchair for occasional use, but leave it in the car...the walking does become a strain quite quickly. We must have taken the shortest walk, which probably was around 1 mile long (by the end of which I was seriously flagging!) and we only saw a tiny fraction of the entire sanctuary.
There are plenty of other walks around The Donkey Sanctuary, ranging from the (relatively) short to the very long, so if you are able to make it round any of these it's worth doing as the donkeys are lovely, and so worth spending a little extra time and energy on. There are no routes to follow, and as far as I'm aware there were no activities or anything to do along the way - which you may not like if you want to keep your children busy - but this just makes strolling around The Donkey Sanctuary all the more pleasant. On the plus side, although there may not be any activities for your children, all the open space and running around should tire them out soon enough!
All of the fields are edged with a fairly high wooden fence, but the type made from beams rather than panels, so children can still see into the fields. Nevertheless, a few of the fields have another metal fence a bit further inside. There aren't many of these, and I presume these fields house donkeys which are a bit foul-tempered or which can't cope as well with human contact. This is understandable, and although I wanted to run around and hug every single one of the donkeys, it is important to respect that just like humans, some donkeys need their space as well.
At the fields which are only edged by wooden fences, the donkeys are free to walk right up to you at the fence, meaning that you can stroke them and marvel at how soft their hair is! Of course, as well as this, you can stroke the donkeys in the yard to your heart's content, so there are some health and safety problems with this, especially if you eat afterwards. To combat this, located at practical intervals around the sanctuary they have plenty of that antibiotic hand gel for you to use. There are also sinks to wash your hands in (as well as male, female and disabled toilets), conveniently located next to the restaurant.
I gather that there are over 400 donkeys at the sanctuary, which is an extraordinary number and just shows the fantastic work of Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen, who founded The Donkey Sanctuary in 1969. Each of the donkeys has a story to tell, and you can just tell that they all have their own personalities and characters.
Some of the donkeys are retired beach donkeys; some have been rescued; some have been taken to The Donkey Sanctuary simply because their owners' circumstances have changed. Dotted around the sanctuary you will find little placards and signs, with photos which tell you which donkeys you are looking at, their names, and a bit about their backgrounds. These are very sweet and helpful as it's nice to learn a bit more about the donkeys, and it means that if they come over to you at the fence you can greet them by name.
Even if you don't see any of these signs, you can still greet most of the donkeys by name. Most of them have a big plastic coloured loop around their necks, a bit like a collar. These aren't tight, and although they may itch occasionally you can see that they're not harming or worrying the donkeys in any way: they're similar to cats' collars or those little rings that go around birds' legs to track them. However, apparently these are used to help the staff with feeding regimes as I understand that they are colour-coded. Carved into them you will also see the donkeys' names, their ages and the dates they arrived at the sanctuary. I think this is a really lovely touch as it makes your interactions with the donkeys so much more personal.
Most of the donkeys are quite old: I saw quite a few neckbands aging the donkeys in their twenties. I also overheard one member of staff talking to some visitors, saying that the oldest donkey they ever had lived to 58! However, they do have some younger donkeys, as some are born at the sanctuary. These young donkeys are so cute, with their wary yet inquisitive nature, so keep your eyes open for them, and encourage them to get close if you can!
As many of the donkeys are very old, it's inevitable that unfortunately some will reach the end of their lives at The Donkey Sanctuary. This is dealt with very sensitively, as I believe there is a special field dedicated to laying them to rest. We didn't actually see this ourselves as it was a bit too far for me to walk, but I know that it is tucked away and you probably won't just happen to stroll past it as you explore the sanctuary. I don't know if they've done anything special to the field, but it's clear how much the staff love and care for the donkeys, so I'm sure that the have commemorated and paid respect to their old friends sensitively.
Nevertheless, during their time at The Donkey Sanctuary many of the donkeys are with family. Often they have arrived with their siblings, or sometimes they live there with their parents or children. I think this is really important as it makes life easier for them, especially when they arrive and are settling in. It also shows the sanctuary staff's concern for the donkeys' wellbeing, as by keeping related donkeys together the donkeys are happier and friendlier.
There are also four donkeys which you can 'adopt' if you so wish. I can't recall these donkeys' names, but they all live together in one field, so you can go and visit them all to choose which one you would like to 'adopt'. I haven't 'adopted' one myself, but I believe that if you do so, you will receive an information pack, a certificate and regular updates on your chosen donkey. One reason why I chose not to 'adopt' a donkey was that I felt the choice was a little limited. I'm sure the staff chose those four donkeys for a very good reason, but each of them must have been 'adopted' thousands of times, which for me prevents the 'adoption' from feeling personal. I would have preferred a system similar to that which you find in many zoos, where you sponsor any animal of your choice. This would include the same features - updates from the chosen donkey, and money going to benefit the sanctuary - but would not be so limited and would give some of the other donkeys more popularity.
---What Else Is There?---
The Slade Centre: The Slade Centre is probably the biggest feature on the site for the Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys (hereafter ESTCD), although as it's not directly linked to caring for donkeys, it may not be that interesting for tourists.
As the name of the trust suggests, the Slade Centre was built as a place for children with physical, mental and learning disabilities to interact with the donkeys, which can be an incredibly effective means of rehabilitation. You are allowed to enter the centre, where two donkeys are housed, although you are not allowed to take photographs, for the safety and protection of the children.
The centre is quite large, although as a visitor all you can see is a large space where the children can ride the donkeys, along with the two donkeys I mentioned which live there. There is also some information about the work which the centre does for the children and how much the children's lives are improved by the work of the centre and the donkeys.
Even if the children are not riding the donkeys when you enter the centre, you can hear them all playing and having fun in one of the other side rooms (which visitors cannot access), which just reinforces the fabulous work of the ESTCD.
There's no doubting that this centre makes a real difference to the lives of the children and their families, and I thoroughly commend the work of the ESTCD. However, if the children are not interacting with the donkeys then there's not a lot to see, so if you happened to skip the centre during your visit you shouldn't feel like you've missed out too much.
Experience days: One of the big downsides of The Donkey Sanctuary, and the reason why I knocked off one half a star, is that you're not allowed to feed the donkeys at all. As many signs around the sanctuary say, fingers can look deceptively like carrots! However, on experience days you can have this opportunity, as you can get involved with feeding and walking the donkeys, mucking them out, and more. I'm not sure if you have to book for these or not, as the leaflet I have contradicts with the website, but you do have to pay for the privilege. Again, I'm not sure how much, as the leaflet I have says it is a 'nominal fee', but the website quotes a price of £175. Not very nominal to me! Either way, this should be a fantastic experience, to get to know the donkeys a bit better, as well as learning (and getting involved in) how they're cared for.
Visitor Centre: The visitor centre is supposed to be part of the shop, but to be honest I'm not sure what the visitor centre really consisted of. Perhaps it was a few leaflets on the side... There wasn't really anyone to talk to, save the woman behind the till for the shop, and I'm not sure how knowledgeable she would be on The Donkey Sanctuary as a whole. The one thing I liked which I presume is part of the visitor centre is a large bucket, where you can put your own treats for the donkeys. As you're not allowed to feed the donkeys yourselves, if you take any treats for them (such as carrots) you can put them in the bucket and at treat time the staff take whatever is in the bucket and feed it to the donkeys themselves. This is a great idea as you can still treat the donkeys without getting your fingers chomped!
Shop: The shop is small, but perfectly formed. The items they sell are all donkey-related, and range from postcards to pens, stuffed toys to stationary, books to bags. Everything is very reasonably priced, as I bought a large jute shopping bag with 'Hee-Haw' on the side, a magnetic donkey shaped photo holder, and a postcard, which all came to exactly £5, which I thought was a real bargain. The shop is well-lit and is easy to move around in, although I imagine if it becomes very busy it may be harder to move around.
Restaurant: The Hayloft is the only place to eat at the sanctuary, although you wouldn't really want to go anywhere else as the food is very good. The portions are generous, the prices are fair and the staff are plenty and attentive. What more could you want?! We ordered a Devon Cream Tea for one, which we shared, and although it was delicious we just couldn't finish it between the two of us! Other food which is available includes sandwiches and soup, so there's something for everyone for every time of year. There is seating both indoors and outdoors, so you can thoroughly enjoy your food as well as the scenery whatever the weather.
Website: You can find more details about The Donkey Sanctuary at www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk. I find this website has varying levels of how useful it is, as I find it can be confusing to navigate and figure out what you're looking at. This is heightened by the fact that some of the information contradicts what the leaflets state. This could be because either the website or the leaflets are slightly out of date, but either way this fact doesn't fill me with much confidence. However, with a bit of searching you can probably find what you're looking for.
All in all, I can hardly fault The Donkey Sanctuary. The two main downsides are: that everything is outside, which means there is lots of walking and it may not be pleasant in all weather conditions; and that you can't feed the donkeys. For each of these I'm knocking off half a star, but if you ignore these then The Donkey Sanctuary is brilliant.
There aren't hundreds of activities, you don't rush about with lots of things to do, there's no business...you are just left to enjoy the simplicity of the donkeys and their surroundings.
The donkeys are so lovely to stroke and get to know, yet they're just as lovely to watch munching grass in the middle of a field.
Kids and grown-ups alike will love the donkeys, and it's a place where you can go and visit time and time again, and spend hours there each time. The place is so large that I'm sure each time you go there will be some more donkeys to see, especially if you try and venture a bit further round the sanctuary each time.
If only I lived a bit closer, I would without doubt make regular trips to The Donkey Sanctuary, but instead I'll have to make do with visits each time I holiday nearby! As I said at the beginning, I would willingly pay £10 or more to enter The Donkey Sanctuary, so I feel that the least I can offer them instead is my patronage, donations, and money for food and souvenirs.
I thoroughly recommend visiting The Donkey Sanctuary if you live nearby - and if you don't, go and book a holiday for somewhere nearby now!
The Donkey Sanctuary
Summary: I've dangled the carrot, now you won't be able to resist!
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