In most of the world, donkeys are beasts of burden, but the only work of the inhabitants of Donkey Park is to spoil, bray and deceive the diverse group of people who find comfort in their company.
Donkey Park is the brainchild of Steve Stiert, who sought a new direction after his work as a software engineer for IBM was eliminated six years ago.
The first time he heard about his daughter's donkeys at the veterinary school, he fell in love with them.
Now he is dedicating his life to providing an opportunity for people to interact with donkeys and experience their reassuring presence.
"The donkeys resonate with who I am," says Stiert, 59, whose equine epiphany appeared after 26 years attached to a computer screen.
"They brought out this sensitive and caring person who had pushed to the bottom while trying to succeed."
The owner of Donkey Park, Steve Stiert, walks among his donkeys in Ulster Park, New York. The retired software engineer from IBM offers free donkey-assisted therapy programs and educational events as part of his mission to protect donkeys from abuse and neglect. Stiert spreads the word about his virtues as peaceful animals that relieve stress
Stiert says that the donkeys resonate with what he is, and that they helped draw out a sensitive side that had pushed him into the background while trying to succeed
Stiert has 11 donkeys, a mule and a Donkey-Zebra hybrid living on a 1.5-acre mini ranch at his home in Ulster Park, 130 km (130 miles) north of New York City. York
It takes them to schools, nursing homes and events for children with disabilities. He also teaches donkey breeding and has an 800-member Meetup group that walks with donkeys.
"They are great sponges for stress," says Stiert. "A lot of people come from the city, travel long distances, and when they go out here, you can see how the stress fades."
The use of donkeys for animal-assisted therapy is gaining popularity among groups dedicated to protecting them from abuse. The Donkey Sanctuary, based in Devon, England, offers donkey-assisted therapy programs for children recovering from cancer, victims of human trafficking and other vulnerable people.
"We do not provide trauma therapy but to develop life skills," says Caron Whaley, director of therapy at the sanctuary.
Steve Stiert spent his life trying to be successful and not be sensitive. After he left IBM, he discovered donkeys and said they are "stress sponges"
Unlike how donkeys are portrayed in popular culture as dreary or moody, they are actually gentle, intelligent and loving, donkey advocates say.
"Some people come with the preconceived idea that they kick, bite, are stubborn, are intractable," says Stiert. & # 39; None of those things is true at all. & # 39;
Each week, The Arc of Ulster-Greene, an organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities, takes a group of adult clients to Donkey Park to brush the donkeys, guide them in an obstacle course and feed them with hay. The donkeys, nine of them only at waist height, easily approach the visitors and delay to caress their long ears or scrape their rumps.
"If I'm in a bad mood, I come here and they help me relax," says Tom Cossaboom, an Arc customer. "They are friendly and calm."
Stiert bought his first six donkeys from the breeders, but then began receiving the ransoms. While you are registered as a non-profit organization, you rely primarily on your own savings to care for the donkeys. He does not make birthday parties, nativity scenes or other events to earn money.
"All our services are free," says Stiert. "We do not hire donkeys."
Patti Lundgren says she looked for Meetup groups when she moved to the area and that she was intrigued by the donkey treks. Now she regularly takes 45 minutes to volunteer at Donkey Park.
"There's such a soft energy about them," says Lundgren. & # 39; I always get out of here feeling really good. The dirtier I am, the better I feel. Ah, donkey therapy, donkey love.
Donkey Park visitor Evan Oster drives a miniature donkey through an obstacle course while volunteer Patti Lundgren watches
Miniature donkeys eat hay at Donkey Park in Ulster Park