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74 MARCH 2005
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tales from the field

Tales from the Donkey Field

Anne Nightingale

It was just before Christmas and it was Michael’s first trip down to see the donkeys that we have on campus (the donkeys are fostered from the Donkey sanctuary in Cork).

Michael was “high risk abscond” so I and another staff took him down to see the donkeys (usually I would take one boy down on my own). As we neared the field Michael became excited and a wee bit giddy. And as we entered the gate to the field he began shouting “Let’s ride them! Yeah!”, his voice raised loudly .

I began to speak in a low tone explaining that we don’t ride the donkeys here.

"Lets chase them,” he said, “and get a stick and give them a good beating.”

Ooh ... I was not expecting this ... I was surprised by this sudden outburst and wondered what my next move might be. My colleague looked at me and I think we both thought we might need to head back in to the unit. But after a sharp in take of breath ... I continued to talk quietly and calmly to Michael explaining that the donkeys were here for a rest and that they had been abused in a previous home. He asked what abused meant. I explained that some adults had been cruel to them in the past and that we treated them very gently while they were here in our care.

“Come on”, he shouted again, “lets make them run.”

"No, no.” I cautioned him to stand still and wait patiently (not very easy for many of the teenagers in our care). I suggested he be gentle and soft and the donkeys would come to him. My colleague looked at me again, wondering out loud whether we should return to the unit, but he maintained his interest.

I explained that this is a boy who needed to be here to see how to be with animals – maybe not at this time but certainly at some later time. Just then Michael did settle just a little and the donkeys came slowly toward him. But once again his excitement got the better of him and he dashed forth and the donkeys ran away. “What if ... will they ... will they bite me? kick me? ... then I can give them a good beating?”

And then I realised ... his bravado about riding and beating was due to him being frightened. And when frightened, Michael’s best form of defence was to attack. A better example I had never seen as to why some boys behave the way they do; that violence and bullying behaviours are cover-ups for fear and anxiety, scaredness and fright.

Michael waited yet again and the donkeys came closer. I handed him an apple showing him how to hold it in two open hands saying, “if you can see your fingers, they won’t be in the donkeys mouth”. He grinned anxiously and with some bravery he held out his hands containing the red apple and as the donkey advanced towards him he dropped the apple in excitement and some little nervousness.

This instance was not the usual way Michael began to deal with his fears of new experiences. But he learned that to be patient and gentle was the only way the donkeys would come towards him ... and they did. A good twenty minutes we waited, and Michael moved forward and then back and closer again, softening his approach each time and eventually the apple was eaten – after being dropped many times – and then hay was offered and Michael’s face creased from ear to ear with delight and wonder.

How lovely to share this experience and growth; to witness this young boy and watch his movements from acute anxiety, to fear, to courage and willingness to try a new behaviour – because we staff offered a level of safety, being there to support him in his endeavours.

This freedom and safety for Michael to try a new way of behaving with these lovely animals was so special for me.

Michael was only with us for three weeks and has moved to another placement. I think those few minutes down with the donkeys may just stay in his memory bank.

Its now very clear why having donkeys can offer such a positive learning experience and this is just one of the “donkey” tales I have to tell.

I love what I do.

A lady in Ireland.

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