A pair of young cancer survivors gained support with their emotional growth from an unlikely source - donkeys.

The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast knows that the calming presence of the donkeys can help vulnerable people develop their life skills, emotional growth and personal awareness.

The Donkey Sanctuary has joined forces with CLIC Sargent to see if the treatment - called Donkey-Assisted Therapy - could have a positive impact on young adult patients looking to process their experiences.

The pilot scheme, held at the charity’s Belfast sanctuary, saw former patients Annaliese Laffan and Leighann Hickinson take part in a nine week Donkey Facilitated Learning programme. The focus of the programme is developing critical life skills in vulnerable people utilizing mutually enriching (donkey and human) interaction sessions.

The hour and a half long interactive sessions take place in a variety of spaces, both inside the arena and outside within a special area that means nature can enhance their experience, with specially trained donkeys. Annaliese and Leighann got to experience sensory grooming, approaching and connecting with donkeys, observing donkeys and their behavior and mindful leading.

Annaliese, 20, was diagnosed with cancer after falling off a jeep and suffering a brain injury while in Australia on a gap year.

Following the accident she was in an induced coma, which led to the discovery of lumps on her neck. During her rehabilitation, she was sent for an emergency biopsy and learned that she had cancer.

“It was such a hard time,” she said. “My parents actually heard the news first. I was struggling to process things with the injury. My parents had to sit me down and talk me through it. It was a horrible shock.”

Annaliese went through gruelling treatment, which was repeated when the cancer returned a second time. Throughout her treatment she was supported by Simon Darby, her CLIC Sargent Young Person’s Social Worker. Following her second bout of treatment, he asked her if she would like to get involved in the pilot.

She said: “At first I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t know how it would work, and I was also worried about getting emotional. I had been pressing a lot down inside and it worried me to let it out.

“You work with these calming animals and we would talk about our experiences and how we felt. Before you know it you are talking about your feelings in a way you haven’t expected. It was a very emotional experience.”

Simon Darby said: “Every week I watched in awe at something I knew very little about. As the weeks went on I experienced goose-bump moments where the young people were talking about issues that many cancer survivors would struggle with years after treatment.

Donkey-assisted therapy at Belfast
Annaliese benefiting from donkey-assisted therapy
Leighann benefiting from donkey-assisted therapy
Donkey-Assisted Therapy sessions take place in a variety of spaces, both inside and outside within a special area that means nature can enhance the experience, with specially trained donkeys.

“Leighann and Annaliese have transformed. Having supported them from the beginning of their cancer journeys I can see them now starting to move forward with plans for the future, I can now see their self-confidence and self-belief for the first time.

“They took a chance by becoming involved in this pilot group even though we didn’t know what the outcome would be. But that chance was certainly worth it and now both Annaliese and Leighann have signed up to new courses to work in education, following the process.”

“CLIC Sargent’s ‘Hidden Costs’ report this summer highlighted the emotional and mental impact of cancer on young patients, with 70% of young patients surveyed saying they experienced depression during treatment and 42% having panic attacks.”

“We would be very keen to look at further possibilities within CLIC Sargent for Donkey Facilitated Learning alongside The Donkey Sanctuary.”

Leighann, 22, was diagnosed when she was 20 after developing a weakness in her right side. Doctors later found a brain tumour, which was later found to be malignant. She underwent surgery, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Caron Whaley, director of donkey-assisted therapy at The Donkey Sanctuary, says: “Our staff facilitate the programme but donkeys do the work - their bond with humans is independent, intuitive, autonomous; without anthropomorphising donkeys, their connection with people both teaches us about them, and teaches us about ourselves. Vulnerable children and adults learn from their physical and emotional experience with these exceptional creatures.”

She said: “I think people need more emotional support when they finish treatment and there’s time for it to hit home. Simon was basically just like a friend to me and helped me get what I needed financially during and after treatment with grants and other things.

“When he mentioned the donkey programme I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went along, not thinking it would work. I find it really hard to talk about my feelings anyway.

“It just gave us a way to distract ourselves with the animals. They help you to relax and to talk about things. I ended up talking about so much. It felt good to talk about these things and this really helped.

“The presence of the donkeys really helps in a way that is hard to explain - you understand when you do it.”