The therapy animals of Butternut Ridge bring solace and smiles
by Niki Kourofsky
DONKEYS BRAY; GEESE HONK; a tiny rooster does a spot-on imitation of a broken alarm clock. In the middle of the uproar sits Ken Parker, who is entertaining a circle of children with his don’t-get-bitten shtick. He wiggles carrot-shape fingers in front of a smiling youngster who gamely chomps down on them with his hand, which is acting as stand-in for a hungry donkey mouth.
After a few more pointers from the grandfatherly 72-year-old—always make your presence known when approaching a donkey; never try to scoop up a chicken without a grown-up—the kids are ready to meet their new friends.
It’s all part of a program geared toward grieving children and kids with special needs, such as those with autism or Down’s syndrome. For about two hours every other Saturday a dozen or so first-graders to teens frolic around Parker’s 30-acre Butternut Ridge Farm, in Peru, catching frogs, petting miniature donkeys, snuggling rabbits or chasing fugitive geese back into their pen. A high point is “pig flopping,” when Butternut, a 200-pound pig, gets scratched and tickled until she tips over and offers up her belly for more love—all set to a soundtrack of squeals and giggles and a shout or two of “I did it!”
Butternut the pig may make a big splash, but the pint-size donkeys always steal the show. For the sessions, each child “adopts” a specific donkey, helping to clean its hooves, brush and walk it. One boy reads to his dun-colored pal. Parker says that “the kids love to be with the animals. There’s a tremendous positive impact.”
For more than 30 years Parker was pastor of the Community Church in Peru. When he retired, in 2003, he went searching for another way to minister to others—and wound up in his own backyard. With a sprawling farm and a lifelong love of animals, Parker realized he was perfectly positioned to spread a bit of inner peace to neighbors in need. He started small, using rabbits and ducks to soothe heartache and anxiety. Then he discovered miniature donkeys: docile, affectionate and just goofy enough to guarantee a smile.
Families in need find Butternut Ridge Farm primarily through word-of-mouth, but the donkeys also travel to hospitals as well as nursing and group homes. Parker says the mini-equines are a perfect fit for therapy. “Dogs are great,” he says, “but take a donkey into a bedroom in a nursing home and you get an entirely different reaction.”
At a recent visit to Pine Harbour, an assisted-living home in Plattsburgh, 34-inch-tall Cleo and her four-month-old baby, Faith, charm the crowd, wandering from chair to chair for a few gentle strokes or a scratch behind the ears. One resident recalls his childhood on the farm; another exclaims that the pair should move in and make themselves a home at the foot of her bed. Then Cleo twitches her tail, indicating she’s about to do what donkeys do—and Parker springs into action, following her out of the room with a strategically placed garbage pail. “It’s good to have a purpose in life,” he calls over his shoulder.
But Parker doesn’t have enough time or hands to catch all the poop that comes his way. That takes a barnyard of helpers, about 10 in all, plus his wife, Helle, and Candyce Trombley, a veterinary technician. Volunteers like Holly and Ken Besaw, of Peru, spend up to a dozen hours a week managing the herd of about 15, identifying those in need of veterinary care, keeping a watchful eye on foaling mamas, cleaning stalls and doing the heavy lifting Parker can no longer do himself.
Holly, a stay-at-home mom, says the gentle donkeys don’t live up to their “bronkin’ buck” reputation. “They get at each other over food or status, but they’ve never tried to kick a person … they give unconditional love.”
Unconditional, but not without cost. Since the children’s farm sessions are free and Parker requests only enough to cover gas for site visits, money is always in short supply. A portion of the baby donkeys are sold—for about $600 to $1,200 each—but that sideline doesn’t keep up with the expenses of feeding and caring for a growing menagerie. Last year Butternut Ridge was granted not-for-profit status; Parker hopes an infusion of donations can help keep the place afloat.
“It’s the most tremendous feeling to help those who need it most,” he says. “I’ll do whatever I can for as long as I can.”
Learn more about Butternut Ridge Farm by calling (518) 643-8295; see photographs and a live-stream donkeycam at butternutridgedonkeys.org.