Bonding with donkeys through riding, grooming and befriending them encourages effective engagement and stimulates the child’s development by way of improving balance, core stability, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, body posture and speech, thus boosting their self-esteem and confidence

Donkey often has derogatory connotations. We often call a person a donkey to insult him or her. But the donkey is a sadly misunderstood animal. As a matter of fact donkeys have excellent memory and can remember a place they have been to or other donkeys they have met over 25 years ago. A donkey also knows how to play it safe and will not get involved in any activity that involves risk.

Once Mannar was a place where donkeys roamed the streets. In fact, donkeys are a symbol of Mannar, with people using donkeys for travel and transport. But with the war, people were displaced and this relationship with the donkeys gradually deteriorated.
According to Bridging Lanka, Executive Director, Jeremy Liyanage, who also happens to be the brainchild of the concept, donkeys are highly intelligent creatures that can even look after a child.

“Donkeys are very protective. They can have real loyal ties with children,” says Liyanage. He pointed out that donkeys’ link with humans is much closer than that of dogs and horses.

When the Bridging Lanka team visited post war Mannar six and half years ago they witnessed how the once so helpful donkeys were suffering. They were ailing and surviving by eating garbage. Liyanage explained that it has come to a point where people consider that donkeys are useless.

“But we wanted to initiate a concept to make them more useful. One of the initiative projects of Bridging Lanka is to rehabilitate donkeys in Mannar and make productive use of them so that they will be accepted and loved by the community,” explained Liyanage.
Donkey Assisted Therapy (DAT) Centre in Murunkan, Mannar has been initiated with the aim of bringing together two of the lesser acknowledged groups in Mannar, children with special needs and donkeys. DAT Center in Mannar was launched on April 27, 2017 with the partnership of Bridging Lanka and Mannar Association for Rehabilitation of Differently Abled People (MARDAP).

Any child from three and a half years onwards, who requires therapy, could visit the centre. There are currently four very well behaved and tamed donkeys at DAT and the centre is providing individual treatment to 40 children at MARDAP. DAT is manned by people trained by the Donkey Sanctuary in UK and India, and local veterinary surgeons.
Donkey Sanctuary in UK and India has rendered technical and financial supported for the DAT Center. Coordinator of DAT, Kelvin Fernando has played a pivotal role in initiating the centre.

“This is the first DAT centre in Asia and we had trials that lasted over two years, with promising results, before initiating the centre,” revealed Liyanage.

Bridging Lanka is a charitable NGO established in 2010 to lend a helping hand to Sri Lankans living in Australia to recover after the war. It has now expanded its service through Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka bridging all communities and ethnic groups. Other than animal welfare Bridging Lanka carries out activities such as education and awareness programmes related to sustainable development and tourism.

Among their community awareness programmes are school programmes conducted at primary and secondary school level, women’s rural development societies and for the general public to change the community’s negative perceptions of the donkey.

In addition to the Donkey Assisted Therapy Center Bridging Lanka also has a donkey adoption programme through which anyone can adopt a donkey for $25 per month and restore the donkey. Prior to the war, the close-knit relationship that existed between humans and feral donkeys allowed the animals to be domesticated. Donkeys are known to forge close and loyal bonds with humans and therefore make ideal pets. Under the programme Bridging Lanka hopes to encourage families of Mannar to ‘adopt a donkey’ or two, provide food and water, and learn to tame and handle them.

In addition, they also have a donkey relocation programme, where they will be moved from urban areas in groups of 25 per month. They will also undergo treatment for injury and disease. Surgical measures are taken to ensure a sustainable population of donkeys. Work-ready donkeys are inoculated and micro chipped. Donkeys are also broken, groomed and ready for easy handling.

They require $20,000 to construct a properly equipped clinic and sanctuary. They already have a one acre property that has been cleared, leveled and fenced in. The centre will also act as a training centre and repository for resource materials on the care and treatment of donkeys. Tourists will be able to visit the centre and learn how to handle, walk and groom tamed donkeys.

According to the Donkey Sanctuary in United Kingdom, donkey therapy is one of the most successful and effective therapies. “Bonding with donkeys through riding, grooming and befriending them encourages effective engagement and stimulates the child’s development by way of improving balance, core stability, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, body posture and speech, thus boosting their self-esteem and confidence,” Liyanage explained the secret of using donkeys in therapy.

Liyanage briefed on how these differently abled children have improved from being afraid to talk to having increased self confidence, enabling them to communicate with family members.

“In the near future we hope to use DAT for war affected people, people who suffer from trauma, the people and other children. DAT can be used in anger management therapy and to recover from war trauma.” revealed Liyanage.

“Our first motive is to instill life skills like confidence, team spirit and self esteem in differently abled children,” explained Liyanage. “The next step is to protect donkeys while using them in a novel way and appreciating them while turning a new page in tourism and village economic development.”