We share the story of Karen, a front-line NHS worker who formed an unlikely bond with a pair of donkeys at one of our Guardian homes.

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic's full force hit the UK as the country went into nationwide lockdown. For Karen, an NHS Social Prescriber, this meant leaving behind her parents to allow them to shield.

Donkey Guardians, Jo and Veronica had seen all the bookings for their Acorn Cottage cancelled in the wake of new restrictions and eagerly put themselves forward to help accommodate NHS workers. Karen was paired up with the couple and made her way to their Derbyshire farm in April.

"Driving up the quiet country lane for the first time last April, I felt mixed emotions. It was a place of calm, and I felt safe and grateful, but also torn apart from my parents and incredibly lonely, with no idea when I could ever go home again."

Karen had never considered herself an animal lover, but she was only a week away from forming a deep-rooted connection with two donkeys - Barney and Pumpkin.

Jo and Veronica provide us with essential help as Donkey Guardians by freeing up vital space in our sanctuaries, and they have cared for Barney and Pumpkin since 2014.

At first, Karen didn't take up Jo and Veronica's offer to meet the pair of donkeys, as she struggled to cope with the pressures of work.

But after a week at the farm, Karen went to meet Barney and Pumpkin. Jo and Veronica reassured her that the donkeys could help provide some emotional support during the challenging times.

Veronica and Jo accompanied Karen to Barney and Pumpkin's field and told her to wait for them to approach in their own time. As Barney and Pumpkin began their approach, Karen felt an instantaneous connection forming.

Karen meets Barney and Pumpkin

"I felt like they were reading my mind and as they nuzzled into me gently, the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. I rested my head on Barney’s mane and felt at peace.  

Veronica was right, the donkeys really were there for me. From that day on, they were my comfort blanket, wrapped around me in the storm of the pandemic.

I’m still so stressed and I don’t want to bother anyone, but I can go to the donkeys and have a good cry and they bring light into my day when all around me is dark. Being in their company is calming and they understand how I’m feeling and what I need, sometimes nuzzling for a cuddle, sometimes being playful and funny."

Donkeys have an incredible emotional capacity and can create powerful emotional ties with people they meet, bringing a sense of peace and calm to stressful situations. The feeling of tranquillity experienced by Karen is what makes donkeys wonderful therapy animals. They can help people develop the emotional and psychological capacity to deal with broader challenges in life.

Karen's relationship with Barney and Pumpkin has continued to be an essential counterbalance to work stresses and being away from home. She now considers herself very good friends with the pair and will often take the time to have a quiet and reflective moment with them. She has even started to help with Barney and Pumpkin's care, assisting with mucking out their living quarters.

"They show me that while you can’t always solve the challenges of life, you can find ways to cope."  

With thanks to Kim Willis for sharing abstracts of her interview with Karen with us.