In early September I had the pleasure of accompanying five very special donkeys on their journey from Manchester to Sidmouth.
The donkeys in question – Cocoa, Hannah, Toby, Tufty and Dylan – had spent around 12 years each at our Manchester Sanctuary, and it was time for them to put their hooves up with a well-earned retirement in Devon.
Cocoa and Hannah in particular are well-known characters as they are on our adoption scheme, and many supporters hold them dear to their heart. Toby also has his fans, having been previously been an adoption donkey.
We saw their journey south as a perfect opportunity to offer a window into the work of the charity and allow any supporters to follow the donkeys’ journey step by step to really show that they are in the best hands.
I joined Donkey Sanctuary driver Mark Mingo in Sidmouth on the Monday morning to make our way to Manchester in readiness for loading the donkeys the following morning.
Mark has been driving for the Sanctuary for around 15 years, and knew our founder Dr Svendsen from when he was about eight years old.
It was fascinating to listen to Mark and his stories and experiences of transporting and rescuing donkeys. During his career his has transported endangered animals and live cargo worth millions of pounds all over the world - so I knew thee donkeys were in the best hands possible.
On the trip we updated supporters every step of the way and it was great to hear from people all through the journey who wished the donkeys well, sent us photos of their adoption donkeys and let us know that they had been to visit the donkeys to say farewell before they left.
On the Tuesday morning we woke up bright and early, ready to prepare the donkeys for their journey.
First things first it was breakfast time – for the donkeys, that is. The staff at our Manchester Sanctuary gave all the donkeys their breakfast in their usual way.
It seemed, though, that the donkeys knew something was happening today, they all seemed to have some mischief in them, and while our backs were turned, Toby had tried sneaking into the store room to get some biscuits for the journey!
Some of the staff have known and cared for these donkeys, day in, day out for 12 years, and so it was always going to be an emotional morning. The five travelling donkeys were taken to one side and each given some special attention; grooming, hoof-picking, eye-wiping, mane-trimming, and lots and lots of kisses.
I know that all of the donkeys at The Donkey Sanctuary are well taken care of, but it was still amazing for me to see the bond between the grooms and the donkeys, the detail to which they were prepared, and to see how much everyone really, genuinely cared for each animal.
The grooms and Mark the driver made sure that every detail was considered; a bale of their own straw was put onto the lorry, as well as some ginger nut treats, while the windows on the lorry had been left open, with a fan going to ensure the donkeys stayed nice and cool.
It was time for the donkeys to get on board. Tufty and Hannah wandered on no problem, but a little bit of ginger biscuit coaxing was needed for the rest of the troupe.
Once on board, Mark tells me that the first 20-30 minutes of the journey is the most important, after around 20 minutes we stopped to check on the donkeys to see if they were warm or stressed at all, but they were happy as can be.
In the cab of the lorry there is a small screen with a live feed of the donkeys in the back, and as the donkeys were resting their heads on each other’s backs, Mark told me he was happy that the donkeys were not being stressed by the journey – something that’s very important to keep an eye on when it comes to donkeys, to avoid Hyperlipaemia setting in.
The lovely thing about the donkeys moving to Sidmouth is that one of our grooms, Lauren, recently moved from Manchester to work at Slade House Farm, so when the donkeys arrived, there was a familiar face waiting to greet them.
As they stepped off the lorry into their new home, a welcome sign made out of ginger biscuits was awaiting them, before wandering off to test out the West Country grass.
The donkeys are in an isolated area of the farm, which is not open to visitors, and will remain there for a number of weeks before joining the wider herd in Shelter 1, where supporters will be able to keep track of the donkeys on the webcam.