What the Donkey Sanctuary could teach the #NHS and #socialcare

Disclaimer: this blog post may just be a very simple cover to share pics of donkeys, but hopefully the words might make sense too, if not enjoy the donks 


I am very fortunate to live about half an hour from the Donkey Sanctuary headquarters at Sidmouth and consequently when I’m looking for a day out, or I’ve volunteered myself for looking after mate’s kids, I’ll often head in their direction. As I was strolling around this week I thought I really should write a blog capturing some of the potential learning for health and social care based on the donkeys.


The Donkey Sanctuary is open every day from 9am until dusk. There are no charges for parking or visiting but donations are welcome. There is nearly always a staff member around about the entrance to meet and greet and let people know what is happening, and at the moment while they have building works on to give you a free map and explain where you need to go.

The donkeys are housed in a number of barns around the site. There are a number of walks you can take to visit various barns and donkeys or other attractions like the cafe or the maze. Some areas on site are out of bounds but on the whole you can wander around and get up close with the donkeys – if they want to know you. The welfare of the donkeys is always paramount though and they always have the option to disappear to a secluded spot, or head back to their barns away from the glare of visitors.img_8074

Another nod to openness that I like is that most donkeys wear a collar that tells you their name, age, gender and whether they have any particular dietary or health needs (based on the colour). It allows anyone, groom or nosey member of the public, to spot essential information at a glance.

Imagine if all healthcare environments were that open. If there wasn’t a stuffy sense of control and old fashioned hierarchy when you arrived at the entrance, or onto a ward for your two hours of allocated visiting time, not a minute longer. Or imagine how much better the quality of care might be in a care home if they knew that visitors could arrive any time between 9am and dusk, 365 days a year.


Another thing that I really like about the Donkey Sanctuary, that goes hand in hand with their openness, is their transparency. There is good signage and information everywhere. It deliberately challenges people’s perceptions and any myths that exist around donkeys. It’s educational and practical all in one.

The highlight of their transparency for me is the webcams that are on 24-7, so if you ever want a distraction you can visit and see what your favourite donks are getting up to. In a world where we can’t agree that family members should be able to use video cameras to check in on their relatives in care homes, we can watch donkeys and how they’re treated, every minute of the day. On a good day that also means you get to see donkeys playing football out in the yard. Take a look:



There is an accessibility guide available on their website to help plan a visit to Sidmouth to enable people to access what they have on offer and make clear plans ahead of time. One of the brilliant things about the sanctuary (beside it not charging an entrance fee which allows you to cut short your visit after 20mins of racing around the donkeys if some visitors have had enough or just aren’t feeling it that day) is that most of the site is fully accessible, and where it’s not there is clear signage and alternative directions. Every time I visit I’m struck by the number of visitors in prams, pushchairs, wheelchairs and walkers.

Even the most skilled map reader I ever knew (my Dad) could manage to get lost in one of our local hospitals. It was a labyrinth of dead ends, wrong turns, locked staircases and staff only areas. Imagine if every site you visited for an appointment or treatment had such a commitment to accessibility and was as easy to find your way around.

Family involvement 

The Donkey Sanctuary runs an adoption scheme so a number of people can contribute to the welfare and upkeep of their chosen donkey. Any visitors to Sidmouth can see their donkeys in their barns, and several times a day there is the chance of a meet and greet with the adoption donkeys.

As amazing as I think donkeys are, and as much as I could spend all day just scratching them behind the ears or stroking their noses when visiting with youngsters or older rellies they often like a break. The Donkey Sanctuary has a play park area complete with some donkeys kids can climb on, a mini barn, a tractor and stepping stones, and it also has a fair size cafe where you can enjoy lunch or coffee and cake. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in hospitals, hospices and social care establishments and very, very rarely are they places that seem to consider the needs of visitors, least of all the very old or the very young.


Community connections

I guess in a way this point links to the earlier one about accessibility, but there is a real welcoming feel to the Donkey Sanctuary and a huge team of volunteers who take on various roles giving their time for free. I also suspect that the simple fact that they’re open 365 days a year means that they provide a community connecting service, a place to go and to be, when perhaps you don’t have your own family or friends, or don’t wish to be caught up in other’s festivities.

There are a large number of memorial plagues, trees and benches at the Sidmouth site, yet another reason I love it. I’m also led to believe that the sanctuary is one of the biggest (possibly even the number one) receiver of bequests from wills in the UK. I’m not sure if that is true, but I am sure that it’s a lovely place to remember a loved one, and their openness and accessibility would make for a great place to visit and spend time remembering them, or their favourite donk.

How many of our essential services run a ‘reduced service’ at holiday times, when some people will need that support more than ever?

Hospital companionship 

I don’t know how the purpose built donkey hospital at Sidmouth ranks, but i’m fairly sure that it would get a CQC Outstanding rating when it comes to caring, responsive and well-led. If a donkey gets sick and they need to visit the hospital this is what is considered:

Donkeys bond closely with other animals, so much so that they can become distressed if separated. For this reason, they are always admitted to the hospital in the company of their friend for any operations or complex treatment that cannot be resolved on their home farms.

A community-centric model of care, with compassion. How many learning disabled people, or older people with dementia, or young children, or to be frank anyone, would benefit from this level of awareness when they’re feeling scared and poorly?

Values they live by

The Donkey Sanctuary has a very clear mission:

A world where donkeys and mules live free from suffering, and their contribution to humanity is fully valued.

Which is accompanied by three values at the heart of everything they do: compassion, collaboration and creativity. They are aware that to achieve their mission they need to work with everyone and anyone that they can. Their wish for donkeys to be fully valued, is reflected back in their own approach to people, who they clearly fully value. It makes sense really, how could you hope for a world where donkeys and mules are fully valued, without fully valuing each other?


Earlier this year a three year court battle in Italy came to a conclusion. The Donkey Sanctuary had worked with other key stakeholders and charities to secure the safety and welfare of over 200 animals who’d been abandoned without food or shelter and left to die. The court case resulted in a legal precedent, and a relinquishment order for those 200 animals.

There have been some horrendous treatment of people and patients in the care of the NHS and of social care, yet very very rarely (if ever?) do you see strong ‘opinion’ leadership or commitment. Many put their heads down and are just grateful that they weren’t the ones caught out. This could well be a desperately unfair view but I think we seem to lack strong values led leadership in health and social care, by which I mean actually values led, public statements and commitments to doing better, professionals prepared to take people to court to safeguard the human rights of the people who they supposedly represent, not a public tutting and carry on as usual. Maybe it’s easier to care about donkeys, I don’t know.


My final point links to the last one about values led leadership, it’s about authenticity. It is crystal clear when you spend time at the Donkey Sanctuary that everyone loves donkeys. They’re not distracted by tenders or awards ceremonies or talking about their brilliance, or if they are they’re not splashing it all over the internet. Donkeys are absolutely at the centre of everything they do, donkeys and mules, no more, no less.

I give you my favourite pic from this week, two of the mules who had deigned us with their presence but were only really interested in the sun on their backs, not bothering with pesky visitors. However long we waited, and however hard we tried to encourage them over, they were stubbornly pleasing themselves, 100% authentically, stubborn as a mule. Love them.


One comment on “What the Donkey Sanctuary could teach the #NHS and #socialcare”

David says:

Can’t disagree: they are also investing heavily in new healthcare facilities; a new hospital with no PFI to tie them down for years to come.

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