Hudson Valley Donkey Park Founder Steve Stiert organizes donkey walking meetups and volunteer opportunities for people to learn more about handling and socializing with donkeys.
Want to walk a donkey? There’s a meetup group for that. Looking for a reason to walk a donkey? Steve Stiert, who founded a donkey walking meetup, says there are multiple reasons to amble alongside this hardworking member of the horse family. Stiert is so fond of donkeys he considers himself a donkey ambassador.
The Ulster Park resident first became interested in donkeys about five years ago, but the degree to which his passion escalated astonished everyone he knew. It was an unexpected development for the retired software programmer.
“If you ask the people who knew me then, they were all surprised that it became such a passion,” said Stiert. “I had no previous experience raising or caring for animals.”
Stiert had always worked a desk job and was not terribly interested in nature, but his curiosity was sparked when his daughter, then a veterinary student, told him she was joining a donkey club. The research that this inspired proved to be a revelation.
“I found a lot of videos about the personality of donkeys that I never expected,” he said. “I can’t quite explain it. Something about it captured my imagination.”
Without ever owning a donkey, Stiert began planning to house one. When he showed his barn and fence plans to friends and family they assumed he was having a midlife crisis and suggested he buy something he could more easily sell.
“I think they wanted to start an intervention for me,” he said.
Stiert was not deterred. He purchased his first donkey and then realized it needed a companion. He slowly acquired more. Today, he owns 13 animals including nine miniature donkeys, whose mature height is under three feet; two large standard donkeys, who measure up to five feet; a mule, and a zonkey (zebra-donkey hybrid).
Caring for donkeys required lifestyle changes, but they only made him happier. After decades of working in an office, being outside all day made him feel healthier. Because he wanted to share the happiness donkeys gave him, he became even more social. Since acquiring his pets he’s met hundreds of people between visitors to the donkey park on his property and among the residents in nursing and veteran’s homes he takes his donkeys to visit.
According to Stiert, donkeys not only make great pets but are naturally suited to being therapy animals. They are calmer than horses since they don’t startle as easily. They’re desert animals and not programmed to waste calories by trying to run and escape. They like to cuddle.
“People have the pleasure of interacting with a big soft cuddly animal,” said Stiert. “Donkey fur is softer than people realize. They’re very cute and it’s kind of like hugging a big living teddy bear.”
One of the first things Stiert’s research taught him was that donkeys got a bad rap. They’re not as stubborn or ornery as portrayed, but actually sweet, smart and playful. They may be maligned because they are worked too hard. Ninety percent of the world’s donkeys live in countries that are not technologically developed, so they do the heavy loading.
“Donkeys are the hardest working animals on the planet and have been for millennia,” he said. “Donkeys that are heavily used are not going to be friendly and accepting in that environment. When you give them a chance to be donkeys they are very affectionate.”
Stiert’s donkey park in Ulster Park evolved from his desire to share his experience. Visitors often include students, from third grade to college; 4-H clubs and other children’s organizations, plus anyone who is curious.
“I’m surprised by how many people come see donkeys to celebrate a birthday or wedding anniversary or another significant event. A lot of these people have never owned donkeys.”
Stiert does not charge admission to the donkey park but he does accept donations and recruits volunteers to help care for his pets. He also organizes the meetups which involve walking his miniature donkeys on flat and hilly trails. The two-to-three-hour walks began as a way to socialize his donkeys and train people to handle them, but they received an overwhelmingly positive response.
“I pictured maybe a dozen or so might come to such a group but now we have over 600 members, many of whom are now actively involved as volunteers,” Stiert notes. “Walking is something lot of people do anyway and this is walking in nature with some fun challenges.”
Stiert will teach a course on donkeys this June in conjunction with SUNY Ulster Continuing Education. There’s a lot, he says, that might amaze people about donkeys. Besides having a sweet nature, they’re also really good at working in arid conditions, second only to camels in their ability to go without water.
“They can work three days without water and can rehydrate in matter of minutes. If a human tries to drink that much water we would die from water toxicity.”
Although his interest in donkeys was sudden, Stiert is convinced it will endure. He can’t imagine a future without the pets he calls his “little brays of sunshine.”
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “Next to my kids, it was the best decision I ever made.”
This story originally appeared in Hudson Valley Magazine.