Last week we were pleased to welcome 45 first year undergraduate students from the University of Plymouth. The students have just begun their studies in ‘Animal Behaviour and Welfare’ and are spending parts of their first term visiting local animal charities and conservation organisations. Most of the students had never visited the Sanctuary and the majority had never even touched a donkey so it was a new experience for them!
The students all arrived with their own ideas about what we do and where we work, most were very surprised to learn about the sheer number of donkeys we care for and the number of countries around the world that we work in. After a short intro to the Sanctuary the students began with a talk on donkey behaviour and then were asked to carry out some observations of behaviour in a group of our donkeys before the best bit for all concerned – a lovely grooming session to round off the day.
We began the behaviour session by talking about the group’s experience of donkeys (often media inventions like the Shrek Donkey or Eeyore) and it didn’t take long for the words stubborn, kicks and miserable to appear. This wasn’t surprising to me as these are normally the first thoughts of people who haven’t much experience with donkeys and it is always a great challenge to try and change people’s minds about these wonderful creatures – they can be so misunderstood!
Whilst talking about behaviour we discussed how the evolution of the donkey as a desert dwelling animal has influenced their behaviour and physical appearance. Did you know wild donkeys in Africa evolved with such big ears to help them regulate their temperature or that donkeys feet are much more absorbent than horses so that they can absorb any precious moisture in the desert to prevent their feet from cracking?
We also discussed the public perception of donkeys and I pointed out that donkeys are not stubborn, they are just the great considerers of the animal kingdom, they like to think about what is being asked of them before they do it, this seems pretty sensible to me. When discussing behavioural ‘problems’ like kicking we also talked about how this is a natural reaction for a prey animal and that really it shows what docile and adaptable creatures donkeys are in that they will very rarely kick if handled quietly and kindly and if trained properly.
Hopefully the students left the behaviour session a little wiser about donkeys and they certainly seemed enthused to go and meet some real donkeys and take part in a grooming session. After some hesitation and a few encouraging nudges from our special geriatric donkeys selected for extra TLC the students were well away with their grooming session.
This is the first time that many of the students have touched an animal bigger than a dog and of course our donkeys behaved impeccably and loved the attention, they really are their own greatest ambassadors. It was wonderful to watch some of the animal carers and professionals of tomorrow fall in love with these animals in front of our eyes, many came with preconceptions, nervousness or apathy but I’m positive that we’ve sent away a few more donkey enthusiasts in to the world and of course it seemed that the great winners of the day were the donkeys who loved all the attention!