Learning with donkeys: a ‘more-than-human’ approach to animal assisted activities

Cara Clancy
Fiona Cooke
Presentation date

The last twenty years have seen an explosion of interest in animal assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activity (AAA). Equines are used in a range of human service contexts. However, very rarely are the voices of equines brought to the fore, as the majority of studies focus on the benefits to humans. Drawing on empirical research with donkeys, this paper suggests how animal assisted activities might be rethought from a more-than-human (i.e. non-anthropocentric) perspective, contributing to the field of AAA and recent developments in animal studies / human-animal interaction. This presentation draws on in-depth interviews and ethnographic observations of donkey-facilitated learning (DFL), at three regional Donkey Sanctuary centres, to understand the needs and interests of donkeys partaking in DFL sessions. Through our investigations, we revealed how AAA can be rethought in terms of animal work, as it often involves mental and emotional labour on the part of the animal. Secondly, we found that equine facilitators have a critical role to play in ‘tuning in’ to individual animal needs, to identify opportunities for positive experiences. Thirdly, we noted the importance of knowing individual donkeys for a more-than-human approach to AAA. Together, our findings highlight important steps towards less anthropocentric approaches in AAA. We have also demonstrated that more species-specific research is needed, including a greater need to consider the animal experience when designing, developing and monitoring AAAs.