I started early this morning visiting the donkeys who had a peaceful night and I have to say there can’t be a much better early morning experience than just being around calm, placid donkeys in beautiful early morning Californian sun. Especially if you can have just found a small English tea shop in America which makes a perfect cup of tea and you can stand there talking donkeys drinking tea in the sunshine. It sounds very idyllic, but I’m very conscious of the large amount of expectations we are putting on the donkeys to work with the people and to help educate all these participants in the Donkey Welfare Symposium. Having checked they are alright and making my way over to the symposium hall after the usual technical difficulties, the symposium gets under way and it’s a marvellous experience to be stood in a room full of donkey enthusiasts. As a speaker, it’s about as good as it gets because you know you’re not going to have to work too hard to convince anybody of what you’re trying to say about the morals and benefits of donkeys.
Stephen Blakeway, head of International operations at The Donkey Sanctuary, does a great presentation on the work of the Sanctuary in Africa. There are huge challenges that are being faced and the amazing improvements that are being made. It’s a constant reminder of what’s going on all over the world 24 hours a day to improve the welfare of donkeys. Somebody in our Sanctuary team is probably working any moment in the day to improve donkey welfare and care and that’s a phenomenal thought and it’s something I’m very pleased to be involved in. And it’s all made possible by the work and support from ordinary people from all over the world.
I’m really pleased with my presentation and how it engaged with people. The science of behaviour works in all sorts of spheres. There’s even the science of how to give presentations and what’s effective and of course I’ve studied and worked with it. Telling stories about donkeys is a really effective way of getting the messages that are most important to stick. So yet again the donkeys become the teachers and we just become vessels which allow those messages to get out to a wider audience.
As lunchtime approaches, I slip down to the barns to sort out all the donkeys to get them ready for the afternoon clinic and for the demonstrations of the farrier and dentist.
The donkeys are really willing and obliging and despite their total uncertainty about what’s happening, their kind nature and willingness just comes through.
We spend a wonderful afternoon working with the course participants and it’s really about just sitting on the fence to start with and watching the donkeys. Also getting people to slow down. After all, the people that are going to be working with the donkeys are a little apprehensive and being watched by me. We need to create a relationship first so that they can trust me and I’m not got to yell at them if they get it wrong. They also need to relax because they’ve got other course participants watching them. They need to get to know the donkeys and essentially we just spend the afternoon getting people to understand about starting the relationship with their donkeys. Not doing things to the donkeys but learning about the donkeys. How do they think? What do they like? What don’t they like? Are they likely to come forward? How quickly do they offer behaviour? These are some really essential points and it’s such a small and important area that is often missed and I liken it to being on a first date. For our course participants and these donkeys they are kind of on a blind date and it’s really important that we recognise that in those first meetings, people are making mental maps of their donkeys. And the donkeys are making mental maps of the behaviour of the people. And together they are making what we might call a “we” map of how the donkey and human are going to interact together. And then it’s real first date territory. It’s important that you don’t rush things but that you are also honest about who you are and you listen deeply and intensely to the other partner in the relationship if you want it to go forward.
By the end of the afternoon there are lots of questions, lots of working with behaviour and learning, but just a wonderful experience of letting donkeys show us what they really think, how they really behave if we take the time to stop and listen and to interact rather than just doing things. And for me, summed up in that old saying we need to return to become human beings. Just being with the donkey. Being in the moment. Being with ourselves rather than our constant modern infatuation with doing. Doing this. How far can I push the donkey? How much can I do with the donkey? How much can I achieve with the donkey? We are so goal-orientated that it’s easy to push too many things too quickly before the relationship’s established and then wonder why there’s a problem.
Tomorrow I have another talk on obesity in donkeys and how we change human behaviour and then we’re going to go back to the afternoon clinic and see what the donkeys learnt from yesterday and overnight all the participants had homework to write shaping plans, so it promises to be another beautiful day working with donkeys in the Californian sunshine. And again I consider how fortunate I am to work with these creatures and the opportunity to make a difference in so many wonderful places.
My thanks to Marjorie Farabee for taking some wonderful photos at the symposium to share.