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Learning With Donkeys – A “More-Than-Human” Approach to Animal-Assisted Activities

In: Society & Animals
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Cara Clancy Research and Operational Support Department, The Donkey Sanctuary Sidmouth UK

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Fiona Cooke Research and Operational Support Department, The Donkey Sanctuary Sidmouth UK

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Richard Gorman Bioethics, Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Brighton and Sussex Medical School UK

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https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7809-499X
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Abstract

The last twenty years have seen increased interest in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activity (AAA). However, there has been little research exploring these interactions as experienced by the animals themselves. In this paper, we bring a “more-than-human” lens to concepts and practices within AAA/T, synthesizing ideas about animal sentience and subjectivity that have emerged within animal geography scholarship and animal welfare science. We draw from empirical work with practitioners involved in donkey-facilitated learning (DFL) to examine the knowledge base of equine facilitators, including their beliefs, opinions, and assumptions about donkeys, their understanding of animal welfare, and their role in DFL. We discuss how knowledge of donkeys is mobilized to ensure more-than-human welfare during DFL; how animals’ “choice” to participate is encouraged and centered; how ideas of nonhuman labor create opportunities for considering more-than-human welfare; and how practitioners advocate for animals and embed practices of care for humans and nonhumans.

Abstract

The last twenty years have seen increased interest in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activity (AAA). However, there has been little research exploring these interactions as experienced by the animals themselves. In this paper, we bring a “more-than-human” lens to concepts and practices within AAA/T, synthesizing ideas about animal sentience and subjectivity that have emerged within animal geography scholarship and animal welfare science. We draw from empirical work with practitioners involved in donkey-facilitated learning (DFL) to examine the knowledge base of equine facilitators, including their beliefs, opinions, and assumptions about donkeys, their understanding of animal welfare, and their role in DFL. We discuss how knowledge of donkeys is mobilized to ensure more-than-human welfare during DFL; how animals’ “choice” to participate is encouraged and centered; how ideas of nonhuman labor create opportunities for considering more-than-human welfare; and how practitioners advocate for animals and embed practices of care for humans and nonhumans.

The last twenty years have seen an explosion of interest in animal assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activity (AAA) (Fine, 2019). Academics and practitioners have increasingly sought to demonstrate the psychosocial benefits of interacting with animals (Wells, 2019). Animal interaction can support human health and wellbeing, quality of life, and social connections (Every et al., 2017). In recent decades, equines have been included in a range of human service contexts, including counseling and learning programs (Bachi, 2013), mental health interventions (Nurenburg et al., 2015), juvenile detention centers (Hemingway et al., 2015), addiction treatment programs (Pollack, 2009) and emotional and behavioral trauma programs for high-risk youth and veterans (Jarrell, 2009). However, there has been a notable absence of research on the effects that animal-assisted activities and therapies have on the animals themselves. Only a handful of studies have specifically considered such programs from the perspective of the animals involved (Hatch, 2017; Gorman, 2019) – and while there is growing consideration of animal welfare in AAAs (Ng et al., 2018), academic studies are limited and mostly conducted in the context of canine-assisted therapy (e.g., Glenk, 2017; Marinelli et al., 2009; Silas et al., 2019; Vitztum & Urbanik, 2016). Additionally, Whitham-Jones (2019) found that most papers on equine-assisted activities focus on the benefits to humans; rarely are equine voices brought to the fore.

This paper seeks to explore the opportunities to, and rationale for, more equitably centering the perspectives of animals within animal-assisted activities and therapies (AAA/T). In doing so, we identify the need to consider the animal experience when designing, developing, and monitoring such programs. Drawing on empirical work with practitioners involved in donkey-facilitated learning (DFL), the paper explores steps towards more equitable human-donkey relationships and encounters, and discusses how practitioners might understand and approach animal welfare in AAAs.

Animal-Assisted Activities, Welfare, and “More-Than-Human” Considerations

The psychosocial benefits of interacting with animals has been well documented in literature (Wells, 2019). Children and adults with diverse additional needs have been reported to benefit from contact or companionship with animals. However, most discussions on human-animal interactions and their therapeutic effects tend to focus on human benefits (Gorman, 2019; Hatch, 2017). For instance, Hatch (2017) found that animal-assisted programs, including the way they are measured and evaluated, are often geared around the question, “What can animals do for us?” Likewise, in his study of care farms, Gorman (2019) found that the subjectivities and interests of nonhuman animals are often sidelined – subordinated to human health concerns and considerations. He drew our attention to the “often-troubling anthropocentrism in which such practices are framed and performed” (2019, p. 313) and called for more work to reconsider “how care for humans and nonhumans might be brought together, in ways that open up potentialities for mutual and more-than-human benefit” (2019, p. 321). This leads us to consider how AAA/Ts can be rethought and reframed from a more-than-human perspective.

“More-than-human” is a phrase owed to Whatmore (2006), whose work acknowledges the contributions of nonhuman plants and animals in social settings, highlighting nonhuman agency and subjectivity. The conceptual framework for more-than-human approaches stems from posthumanist interventions and the “animal turn” in the social sciences (Ritvo, 2007) – academic movements that presented nonhuman animals in new terms and under new premises. More-than-human scholarship encourages us to take nonhumans seriously, as subjects with their own interests, agendas, and needs, with complex emotional intelligence, worthy of ethical and academic inquiry. Bringing a more-than-human lens to discussions about AAA generates fertile ground for exploring how AAA/T programs might position nonhumans more centrally and what this might mean for animal welfare. In this paper, we set out an initial attempt to bring these academic fields together to advance discussions about animal experience within AAA/Ts.

Animal welfare is a multifaceted concept that refers to the physical and emotional state of an animal, and their “attempt to cope with [their] environment” (Broom, 1986), which is affected by the environment, human attitudes and practices, and resources available. Broadly speaking, it includes three main elements of the animal state: normal biological functioning (including good health and nourishment), the animal’s emotional state (including absence of negative emotions), and the ability to express normal behavior (Fraser et al., 1997). Historically, animal welfare has pertained to indicators of pain, fear, and stress, referring to the avoidance of imposing negative experiences rather than promoting positive experiences (The Brambell Report, 1965). However, the last twenty years have seen a major shift in animal welfare and behavior science in response to the increased recognition of animal selfhood, subjectivity, and sentience (Broom, 2014; Dawkins, 2006; Wemelsfelder, 2007). As Dawkins (2006) wrote, “real respect for animals will come when we see them as sentient beings in their own right, with their own views and opinions, their own likes and dislikes. The animal voice should be heard” (p. 8).

Knowledge has expanded and diversified to make sense of different animal experiences, cognitive abilities, and socially complex behaviors. Notions once reserved for humans are now being applied to animals, from concepts of wellbeing to the idea of “a good life” (Greene & Mellor, 2011). Good animal welfare results from both an absence of negative experiences and the presence of positive experiences. A wide range of emotional states is now being articulated and made measurable by the animal welfare community (Mellor, 2020; Wemelsfelder, 2007), with a recognition that animals have rich and complex emotional lives (Harfeld, 2013). These include more subtle emotions and qualities such as joy and contentment, which were previously thought only to be experienced by humans.

Developments in animal welfare science have synergies with more-than-human scholarship. Both more-than-human scholarship and animal welfare principles acknowledge nonhumans as complex subjects. More-than-human scholarship attends to animal bodies and minds, but also emphasizes the role of the environment (spaces, places) and social practices and human relations that structure the experiences of nonhuman animals. Research has increasingly shown that both the environment and human-animal interactions can have a significant impact on animal welfare and wellbeing, including the generation of positive experiences (Harfeld, 2013; Mellor, 2020).

The question of animal welfare takes on a different dimension within therapeutic practices and other forms of AAA. A key facet of animal welfare (at least in Western contexts) is the concept of natural behavior (Five Freedoms: Farm Animal Welfare Council, 1992). However, definitions of natural or normal behavior can be understood and assessed in different ways, even for the same species (Yeates, 2018). Additionally, welfare scientists are leaning more towards species-specific assessments, tailored to the unique needs and characteristics of individual species (e.g., Harvey et al., 2020). Therefore, understanding what normal behavior looks like for animals involved in AAA arguably needs more detailed exploration.

Donkeys and Animal-Assisted Activities

Donkeys were domesticated over 7,000 years ago (Mitchell, 2018) and have been used for various purposes, as pack animals, for transport, and as sources of milk and meat. Only in the last 20–30 years have donkeys found a more contemporary role as companions and therapy animals. The use of donkeys in assisted therapy is increasing (González et al., 2019), having been reported to improve communication in people with affective and emotional disorders (Borioni et al., 2012). González et al. (2019) noted that this may be because of the way they use their cognitive abilities to interact with humans. Donkeys are highly intelligent animals, with the capacity to experience a wide range of emotions (Burden & Thiemann, 2015; González et al., 2019). While it has been suggested that donkeys’ capacities and temperament make them suitable for domestication and labor conditions (Geiger & Hovorka, 2015), we must also ask how and whether this might translate to an involvement in therapeutic or educational practices. While individual donkeys may use their cognitive abilities to interact with humans in unique ways (González et al., 2018), it is important not to assume that donkeys are naturally suited to AAA.

While there has been an abundance of research into the welfare conditions of working equids, often based on physical health indicators (Kubasiewicz et al., 2020; Raw et al., 2020), there is a notable lack of research on the welfare – physical and mental – of equids in alternative settings, including therapeutic settings. We might speculate that this results from the liminal space that many therapeutic and/or learning activities occupy – positioned as a form of complementary and alternative medicine, outside of, and juxtaposed to, regimes of contemporary, evidence-based medicine (Taylor, 2014). As such, efforts within this area often focus on ensuring, evaluating, and evangelizing the benefits experienced by humans. Such a focus renders questions of animal experience moot, while also imposing an anthropocentric imagination that these spaces are places of positive experiences for all. This is further complicated by the absence of perceived “obvious” indicators of negative welfare, such as farming or laboratory science. For example, Cobb et al. (2020) found that people perceived the welfare of dogs differently depending on context, with assistance animals presumed to have a high level of welfare. Our work explores how DFL practitioners actively consider donkey experiences within their therapeutic work and increasingly seek to position more-than-human welfare as central to DFL practices.

Methods

With so little published research on donkey-facilitated learning, it was necessary to conduct a pilot study, to identify the key questions regarding the use of donkeys in AAAs. The pilot study was designed with two main objectives: (a) to understand and document the basic principles, practices, and processes of DFL, and (b) examine the knowledge base of equine facilitators, including their beliefs, opinions, and assumptions about donkeys and their role in DFL. Rather than examining the impact of DFL from the perspective of clients (as so many AAA studies do), we were interested in how practitioners actively consider the donkey experience within their therapeutic work. Moreover, due to the variation in clients and the complexity of needs, an entirely different methodology would have been required to capture the experiences and perceptions of clients, with methods uniquely tailored to each individual.

The empirical material offered in this paper was generated between February and April 2019, based on visits to three of The Donkey Sanctuary’s regional centers specializing in DFL. Sixteen key informants with donkey-facing roles were interviewed, including site managers, learning facilitators, equine assistants, and grooms across the centers. Participants were chosen using a “purposive sampling” technique (Sarantakos, 2005), recruited based on their relevance to the subject matter (the practices and processes of DFL) and their knowledge of donkeys. To ensure our methods were designed from a more-than-human perspective, we interviewed informants on a wide range of topics relating to donkey sentience and experience in the context of DFL (see Appendix).

While it may seem counterintuitive to introduce a focus on animals’ experiences by speaking to humans, Dowling et al. (2017) suggested that interview methodologies can open generative possibilities for more-than-human research, as interviews create a space to reflect on the affective and emotional relationships between humans and animals, and on the agency of how animals co-produce encounters. Tsing (2010) argued that multispecies studies require mobilizing the dwelt and situated knowledge of those who live with, work with, and encounter animals on a regular basis. Thus, there is an opportunity, in working with experts in ethology and welfare, to use research interviews to begin to bring the voices and experiences of animals to the fore. By interviewing employees with a variety of donkey-related roles, we were able to gain insights into human and nonhuman responses.

We also conducted participant observation during DFL sessions, documenting the interactions between client and donkey. We observed human and nonhuman participants in equal measure, to position the donkey as a central actor within the study. Observations were recorded in written form using thick description (Geertz, 1973) and coded in NVivo (v.12), along with interviews. Many themes were initially identified through topic coding (Richards, 2005). These were then reflected upon in relation to the literature such that four broader themes emerged: expert and lay knowledge; animal choice/participation; animal work/labor; and advocating for animals.

The research was carried out under the research policy and guidelines of The Donkey Sanctuary and received review and approval from the executive team. Participant data were collected anonymously, and recordings and transcriptions were stored securely following current data protection legislation.

Donkey-Facilitated Learning at The Donkey Sanctuary

The Donkey Sanctuary is one of the largest equine welfare charities worldwide, giving lifelong care to over 6,000 donkeys and mules and reaching approximately 1.8 million donkeys and mules through their global work. There are presently six Donkey-Assisted Therapy (DAT) centers across the UK, with each center working with a range of clients, including cancer recovery patients, high-risk youth, veterans suffering from anxiety and PTSD, young people struggling with addiction, vulnerable women, and victims of abuse and exploitation.

Each DAT center offers DFL as a coaching modality designed to develop three core life skills – self-esteem, empathy, and managing emotions (WHO, 1994). All activities are ground-based (non-riding) and can include sensory grooming, mindful leading, approaching and connecting with donkeys, and observing donkeys and their behavior. DFL is one of the organization’s flagship programs and will be the focus of the empirical content for this paper. Equine-facilitated learning (EFL) was pioneered by Barbara Rector in the late 1990s (Rector, 2005) but has become significantly more popular in the last decade. At The Donkey Sanctuary, DFL focuses on observing and tuning in to equine behavior and “allow[ing] individuals to read a donkey’s emotions while also being encouraged to reflect on their own” (French, 2019, p. 52). This takes place during an 8–10-week program with regular weekly sessions led by a facilitator. Donkeys are turned completely loose into a large secure space. This means that participants, both human and equine, can involve themselves as much or as little as they choose. All sessions are conducted with a minimum of two donkeys (usually a bonded pair) and some sessions are done with the whole group. Individual donkeys can therefore interact with each other as well as the participant, depending on their preference.

Results and Discussion

“Know Your Donkeys” – Expert and Lay Knowledge in AAAs

In the context of AAAs, donkeys have been described as having a “gentle nature” (Borioni et al., 2012, p. 281) and a naturally calm demeanor (Donkey Wise, 2020), alongside the more common label of “stubborn” (González et al., 2019). While certain behavioral repertoires may give the impression that donkeys are calm, it is incorrect to assume this is true for all donkeys. Donkeys who are highly stressed can, in fact, appear outwardly calm (Moehlman, 1998), and their lack of flight response is sometimes misinterpreted as calm stoicism or stubbornness by those less skilled or experienced in understanding donkey behavior.

A calm response can certainly be beneficial in a therapeutic setting (for facilitators and clients). However, each donkey is different and numerous factors may underlie an apparent calm behavioral response, including past experience, training, and current environment (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2017). As one interviewee explained:

[T]he animals’ sociability (whether want to be with us) depends on (a) their character but (b), and probably more importantly, their experience…. It’s their experience with humans that determines how interactive they are, how keen they are to do the assisted learning therapy work.

P13

All donkeys at The Donkey Sanctuary are either rescued or relinquished to the charity (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2019). They have all had very different life experiences, so assessing whether a donkey is enjoying or engaged in an activity requires cultivating a level of sensitivity and knowledge of individual donkeys, attuning to their behaviors and rhythms: “It’s really subtle signs, so some people probably wouldn’t see why that donkey looked unhappy” (P6). P13 added, “It’s knowing their communication tools; their ear position, tail position, muscle tension, all those sorts of things, which are clear [behavioral] signals designed to avoid conflict.” As interviewees revealed, it takes a lot of skill and experience to read donkey behavior and ensure a positive experience for donkeys in AAA and AAT contexts:

There’s so much you need to consider before you put a donkey into a learning environment. Donkeys can change from day to day and each individual donkey can have behaviors that are specific to them…. So, you have to be constantly talking about them and be curious; observing the donkeys in the field with their friends, with clients, so that you understand them as a team.

P9

Equine facilitators and assistants felt it was necessary to “know individual donkeys” in order to respect their needs, preferences, likes, and dislikes; including “what the donkey is comfortable with” (P1) for DFL purposes. At one of the regional centers, five donkeys were not actively participating in AAA sessions. Practitioners explained that this was for varying reasons but was fundamentally due to donkeys’ preferences and welfare needs. Treating each donkey as an individual, with their own biographies and past experiences, was seen as an essential component of good animal welfare and wellbeing: “They’re complex too…. We don’t know what they’ve been through … their past experience…. Put on trucks, moved around, different owners, abandoned” (P3). Practitioners worked to encourage this appreciation of individuality and a “donkey-centric” approach with the clients they worked with, teaching participants how to respond to the behaviors and preferences of different animals: “He knows his behavior affects the donkeys … so he knows he can play rough and tumble with D2 [DFL donkey], but he’ll be a lot quieter around D1. So, he’s got empathy, he’s got self-awareness” (P5). “Knowing your donkeys” is therefore a huge part of creating the space/potential for more-than-human welfare in AAA settings and helping ensure a positive experience for the animals involved.

“If He Chooses to Walk Away …” – Animal Choice and Participation in AAAs

Donkey-facilitated learning is designed to create opportunities for a two-way process: “We allow our donkeys the freedom to work with our clients on the same level to develop an empathetic relationship, which is mutually beneficial for the client and donkey.” (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2020a). Agency is central to positive welfare (Mellor, 2017), and by allowing the donkeys to make decisions about their involvement and engagement in the programs, The Donkey Sanctuary DFL program gives the donkeys agency. Much of this is influenced by a desire to treat donkeys and humans in the same way. Through doing so, aspirations for more-than-human welfare can be achieved, as the human becomes decentered as the sole focus of the therapy or learning.

Not all animals enjoy human interaction or want to take part in assisted activities (Zamir, 2006). As Matamonasa-Bennett (2015) argued, “just like all people do not want to be therapists, not all horses will want to engage with humans in a therapeutic context” (p. 37). Popular forms of EFL and equine therapy, especially for those with physical and/or learning difficulties, often involve a form of riding, where the client is placed on the back of the animal. In this model, the equine often has less opportunity to respond freely to what is being asked of them or express if the experience is negative for them. The Donkey Sanctuary offered riding therapy in its early years (The Donkey Sanctuary, 2020b). However, research suggests that ground-based (non-riding) interaction provides the potential for a wider range of benefits, for both donkeys and participants, compared to riding (Klotz, 2012; Perry, 2019; Whitham- Jones, 2019). For the last five years, The Donkey Sanctuary has been conducting DFL sessions with donkeys who are loose and unrestrained, and no longer offer riding sessions. By working without headcollars or restraint, donkeys can choose to remove themselves from situations that they experience as uncomfortable or undesirable – this option appears important from a more-than-human perspective. As one facilitator explained:

I think one of the things we should be promoting is that donkeys should not only be at liberty but should have the ability to remove themselves from situations we put them in. If someone [a client] has got heightened emotions, we expect there to be a space where that person can move away and step outside. But we should also expect that for the donkey.

P9

One of the unintended consequences of the organization’s transition to a ground-based model is that it opened up opportunities for donkeys with different behavioral repertoires to be considered for DFL. Under the ground-based (non-riding) model,

[Y]ou want animals that actually have an opinion and feel confident to express it. Animals that go “Nah, I’m not gonna do this” because that actually creates the interaction with the client, where you actually get genuine feedback from the animal.

P13

This promotes donkeys as diverse individuals, with the capacity for choice and decision-making based on their own preferences when such opportunities are afforded to them. As such, the ground-based model could be viewed as more inclusive insofar as it supports and promotes the characters and personalities of different donkeys. From a more-than-human perspective, ground-based interactions have the potential to generate a more leveled relation between human and animal, in contrast with riding models where the animal has less opportunity to be curious, inquisitive, and/or object to what is being asked of them.

Still, the level of donkey agency is still largely dependent on the skills and experience of practitioners – namely, their ability to recognize and understand subtle behavioral cues. One facilitator explained:

[W]hen D5 walks purposefully up to me and stands by my side during a session, that’s his way of communicating he’s had enough…. And if I were to ignore him, he would go to the door and start scratching at it. So, we’re trying to anticipate that before it happens.

P10

So, even though DFL donkeys are unrestrained, there are other environmental restraints that can hinder their ability to express individual preferences or remove themselves from situations. This is because there is always a hierarchy of preferred resources in each environment:

If I’m in a field with grass and my friends and it’s a sunny day and then my value for interaction with a human will probably be diminished. If it’s raining and we’re inside and there’s no source of food, then the value of interaction with a human – or at least the novelty value of interaction – is greatly enhanced. And the donkey will probably be more likely to come up and see what you’re doing. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing, it could be part of the animals’ enrichment, but there is a clear difference.

P13

Therefore, the animal’s participation needs to be critically reflected upon to best support their preferences and choices. This includes recognizing any invisible environmental constraints that may force a donkey to interact with a human when their natural preference might be to keep a distance or move away. This sends an important message to the donkey that their requests are being recognized, which in turn builds trust and better communication.

“They Are Working” – Animal Labor in AAAs

Donkeys are increasingly being used as pets, companions, and therapy animals in various forms of AAAs. Although their role is different to that of a pack animal carrying bricks for 14 hours a day, the concept of work is relevant to AAA discussions, as donkeys in therapeutic settings are still technically working animals. While the risk of physical injury is minimal in AAA/T when compared to a donkey working in a brick kiln, for instance (Watson et al., 2020), there is undoubtedly mental and emotional labor involved. As one practitioner put it,

The donkeys have to be physically and psychologically well to be able to do this work, because we are asking an awful lot of them, so even though physically we’re not – it’s easy to look at them and go “compared to riding, this is really easy; you just stand still for 25 minutes with an emotional person.” But I’ve actually seen multiple donkeys do a 20-minute session and lie down and go to sleep after it. Because to be around a highly anxious human being is exhausting.

P12

Evans and Gray (2011) suggest that long-term exposure to stress can have a detrimental effect on an animal in much the same way as it can on human healthcare professionals. More research is needed to understand the potential emotional burdens potentially created through AAA/T, including whether there are long-lasting effects.

The risk of “overwork” is arguably even more poignant for donkeys compared to other equines due to their stoic nature or lack of overt visual cues as to their emotional experience. As one practitioner explained: “Donkeys will go to that place of being burned out and you might not necessarily see that as early as you would with a horse because they do have that predisposition to cope” (P12).

Some donkeys will consistently seek out human interaction and present themselves as options for DFL sessions. While this might be convenient for facilitators, they have to be mindful to not allow those donkeys to over-exert themselves. One practitioner explained this through the example of a donkey, D3, who was very curious and keen to participate in DFL. Every time staff came in with a headcollar he would approach them. The practitioner explained that they did not take advantage “just because he shows willing[ness] every time” (P10), while at the same time recognizing the value these sessions hold for him. This demonstrates how practitioners must regularly evaluate the behaviors they witness in relation to the donkey’s overall welfare requirements.

Conceptualizing what DFL donkeys do as work aids practitioners in considering the donkey’s experience in DFL and critically reflect on the potential power imbalance in AAAs between human and animal. At The Donkey Sanctuary, the donkey’s workload is limited, monitored on an individual basis, and continually rotated throughout the group. Additionally, practitioners are trained to monitor the interaction between client and donkey during DFL sessions, noting any signs of anxiety, stress, or tiredness. Equine assistants in particular have a critical role to play in ensuring a positive experience for the animals involved. Not only are they trained in understanding donkey behavior, but they are experienced at working with individual donkeys and, as such, can identify their individual needs and preferences, i.e., their usual and unusual responses to various situations and activities. As one facilitator explained: “They’re working: it tires them and it can be stressful. But we’re tuned into that” (P1). Another said, “we might have a donkey do six months and tell us ‘that’s me done’ and we have to listen to that” (P3).

Donkeys – and indeed, most animals – in AAA will never truly be equal partners in this work because they will always be constrained by the agendas of humans. As we have demonstrated thus far, to develop any real sense of “co-working” in AAA (Evans & Gray, 2011), animal care, knowledge, and critical reflection must be firmly embedded into the processes and practices of the field.

“Our Donkeys Come First” – Advocating for Animals in AAAs

Practicing care within the DFL program requires both expert and experiential knowledge of donkeys, as well as the ability to tune in to individual needs preferences. Staff expressed how DFL donkeys received tailored care suited to their individual needs: “These donkeys have had such a tailored experience as DFL donkeys. They’ve been deeply understood by the people who are working with them” (P1).

Furthermore, practicing care also meant being able to observe and critically reflect on the animal’s experience, independently of human priorities. Interviewees involved in DFL discussed how they acted as advocates for donkeys, aiming to treat them in a similar way to the programs’ human participants:

The client will always come with their own advocate, whether that’s a social worker or an educational psychologist or a police officer. So, they have got their advocate, and so we are the advocates for donkeys – for their status and wellbeing as well.

P9

This donkey-centric advocacy can be challenging when reimagining a system that has demonstrated benefits for vulnerable and at-need groups. It involves coming to terms with the idea that previous practices may have resulted in less-than-optimal experiences for some animals. As was previously noted, The Donkey Sanctuary decided to move to solely ground-based interactions. While this may have been disappointing for clients who chose and/or preferred riding, as one practitioner put it: “We’re an animal welfare organization. Our donkeys come first. Whatever we do it has to be in their best interest” (P6).

Acknowledging these more-than-human realities is a challenge for all AAA research. As mentioned earlier, most work in this area concerns itself with demonstrating the case for AAAs as valid and effective forms of therapeutic practice. Being reflective and self-critical of the practices involved in AAAs can be intimidating, especially if this could be detrimental to public and policymaker perceptions. But there is a danger that in much of the discourse and practice surrounding AAAs, animals become positioned as tools for creating therapeutic encounters for humans (Bona & Courtnage, 2014), something DFL practitioners were acutely aware of, and keen to avoid: “You will read a lot of programs that sound like this. You’ll read that the horse is the teacher, but actually when you watch it, the horse is still the tool, and the expert is still the human” (P12).

Therefore, how to listen, tune in, and advocate for the animal in the context of AAA is an increasingly important task for researchers and practitioners of AAAs to address. As a not-for-profit animal welfare charity, staff at The Donkey Sanctuary felt well-placed to promote these practices:

We’re able to step back and explain to our clients that it [the DFL session] might not happen today and there’s a reason for that, and we can make a lesson out of why it didn’t happen: we can empathize, because, you know, some days you might not feel like doing something and it’s the same with the donkeys. So, it’s having the cultural permission to do that.

P13

This permission is perhaps increasingly important in a world – and economy – where multispecies therapeutic affect is increasingly commodified (Gorman, 2019). As our research suggests, ideas of care and co-working in AAA/Ts are as much about acknowledging the preferences of individual animals as they are about meeting physical needs. More research is needed to understand the complex ways that animals choose to participate (or otherwise abstain) from the practices and spaces they are invited into.

Conclusion

Our research indicates that knowledge of individual animals can produce more contingent, sensitive, and situated ways of practicing and performing therapeutic relations with animals. This attunement to individual animals (Greenhough & Roe, 2019) and their moods, likes, and dislikes creates the potential for these relationships to be practiced in a more equitable manner. This means exploring issues such as animal choice and participation, animal labor and work, and partnership and care. We found that practices of care at The Donkey Sanctuary were combined with an interest in the donkeys as “DFL donkeys’” – i.e., donkeys that perform a specific role for others. While this is likely an enriching experience for DFL donkeys, it is important not to characterize their participation as mutual or solely from a place of choice: There is always an imbalance of power in AAA/Ts because they ultimately have human agendas. For instance, many donkeys chose to work outdoors and alongside other donkeys since this was a space that allowed them to “inject what might be termed their own agency into the scene” (Philo & Wilbert, 2000, p. 13).

For the DFL practitioners that we interviewed, elevating the animal experience to be as central as that of the human experience was considered a crucial facet in enabling the practices to be conducted and approached in a manner that allows for more-than-human welfare. This involves making space for animal agency, and even, as this paper suggests, a level of animal expertise. Recent research into animal labor invites us to consider the new and subtle ways that animals work in contemporary western societies and how these roles are experienced by animals (Blattner et al., 2019; Porcher & Estebanez, 2019). At The Donkey Sanctuary, the question of animal labor is partly realized by creating mechanisms for animals to express a level of choice over their participation in DFL. The participating donkeys are carefully monitored, frequently rotated, and offered choice as to whether they participate in sessions or not – something that many not be common practice in other/all AAA settings. Yet more research is needed to understand precisely if/how these mechanisms generate more positive experiences for the animals themselves.

This paper offers a first step in exploring new research directions for donkeys in AAA/T contexts. By bringing a more-than-human lens to ideas and practices within DFL, we have opened up new lines of inquiry regarding the animal experience and what more-than-human welfare might look like in AAA/T. With it, we suggest a critical need to develop a closer dialogue between animal welfare and more-than-human scholarship in AAA/T, including the development of mixed-method approaches that integrate animal welfare assessment tools such as the Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA) (Wemelsfelder, 2007). There is a clear need for more-than-human methodologies in AAA/T so as to offer a comprehensive picture of the complexity of human-nonhuman relations, accounting for the agency and individual experience of all actors involved. Only in this way can we truly understand what “learning with donkeys” means in its fullest sense.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank everyone who gave up their time to take part in the research, particularly staff at The Donkey Sanctuary’s regional centres.

Appendix

Sample Interview Schedule for DFL Facilitator/Equine Assistant

General Introduction

Q1. Describe your role to me in your own words.

Q2. How long have you worked here? What did you do before?

Q3. In your opinion, what are the most important skills needed for this role?

[Prompts: Tell me more about that; why do you think that’s the case?]

DFL

Q4. Tell me about the programme. When did it start?

Q5. How is it structured? What are the aims?

Q6. Who can take part? How do people find out about DFL / access the programme?

Q7. How many clients do you have here? What types of clients?

Q8. Where do sessions take place? Does the environment affect the sessions?

Q9. How does a DFL session normally unfold? Talk me through what happens in a session.

[Prompts: What is the client doing at this point? And what is the donkey doing at this point?]

DFL Donkeys

Q10. Tell me more about the donkeys here. How many are there? When did they arrive?

Q11. What were they like when they arrived? Did they need much training, if any?

Q12. Are all the donkeys taking part in DFL sessions?

[Prompts: If not, why not?]

Q13. How often do they participate? Do clients see the same donkey every week?

Q14. Does each donkey behave differently in DFL sessions? Can you give me some examples?

Role of the Facilitator/Equine Assistant

Q15. Do some donkeys enjoy DFL more than others? How do you know?

Q16. What would you do if you saw a donkey wasn’t enjoying DFL?

[Prompts: Has that ever happened? How did you respond?]

Q17. What do you think is the role of the facilitator / equine assistant when it comes to the donkey’s experience?

Q18: How important is the facilitator / equine assistant: how much does he/she shape the donkey’s experience? In what ways?

Knowledge of/Ideas About Donkeys

Q19. How did you learn about donkey behaviour?

Q20. Can a donkey’s behaviour change from day to day?

[Prompts: How so? Why do you think that is? How does that affect DFL sessions?]

Q21. Is each donkey different here? How did you learn about their differences?

[Prompts: Why is that important do you think?]

Q22. Do they have certain preferences? (E.g. do some donkey prefer certain clients or environments?)

Q23. In your opinion, are all donkeys suitable for use in DFL? If not, why not?

[Prompts: Does their past experience have any influence? How so?]

Q24. What is special about donkeys, in your opinion?

Q25. Thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

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