Introducing Mark Kerr, Donkey Welfare Adviser for The Donkey Sanctuary
The Donkey Sanctuary has been a feature of life for donkey lovers in the UK and around the world for nearly fifty years. Since its humble beginnings in 1968, with one donkey called Naughty Face, it has grown into one of the most important animal charities in the world. The first and last word on donkeys. Open 365 days a year from 9am until dusk, they are always there, letting us know that we’re right to love these amazing creatures and do all we can to protect them.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll bring you some rare glimpses into one of the Sanctuary’s key roles. Donkey Welfare Advisers work on the front line, overseeing the care of every kind of donkey in their area, from rescues to working donkeys and family pets.
When professional horse rider Mark Kerr arrived at The Donkey Sanctuary headquarters in Sidmouth, Devon to attend his interview for the role of Donkey Welfare Adviser in 2002, he was expecting a few donkeys in a shed and maybe an office. He was in for a surprise.
There are seven farms at the Sanctuary and 500 donkeys. There are equine vets and farriers, nutritionists, behaviourists and a large admin team. As well as sites in the UK, The Donkey Sanctuary works in 35 countries worldwide, with Sanctuaries across Europe and major projects in Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Mexico. The charity also provides assisted therapy for children and adults with additional needs and visits to care homes from its centres in Belfast, Birmingham, Ivybridge, Leeds, Manchester and Sidmouth.
Impressed with the breadth of the Sanctuary’s work, Mark was delighted to be offered the job. At his induction, he enjoyed a long chat with Dr S. The late Dr Elisabeth Svensden MBE, beloved founder of the Sanctuary, famously took a keen interest in all of her staff.
Mark’s fascination with equines was sparked when he was just 5 years old. His dad was in the army and he would visit the Military Saddle Club. He began his working life riding horses in Essex, competing in dressage and show jumping as well as teaching, training, judging and dealing with problem horses.
He has an Equine degree and, although this focussed on horses, the comprehensive training provided by The Donkey Sanctuary filled in the gaps. He quickly learned that donkeys are very different to horses, most notably in their behaviour and reactions, and it wasn’t long before he was smitten. He says,
“Once you get to know donkeys, they get under your skin.”
So, while Mark still loves horses, he’s a true donkey convert. Especially now he has got used to the size difference. Initially he would get called out to a ‘really big donkey’ only to be greeted with an animal that, to him, seemed tiny.
The role of the Donkey Welfare Adviser is a varied one. No two days are the same. Mark is the main support for Donkey Guardians – people who rehome donkeys from the Sanctuary – delivering training, carrying out home visits and providing ongoing support.
The long recession has resulted in large numbers of donkeys being neglected and abandoned, so he makes frequent welfare visits and is on hand to advise local donkey sanctuaries and rescue centres.
Mark is the Donkey Welfare Adviser for the South East. He covers a huge area, which includes Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire and South London. He helps to oversee the welfare of beach donkeys in Dymchurch and on Hayling Island, semi-feral donkeys in the New Forest, donkeys at tourist attractions such as Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight and at donkey derbies.
He often liaises with other agencies, such as local authorities. In serious welfare cases, the RSPCA will call him if they need someone with expertise in donkeys. This spirit of collaboration is echoed throughout the work of the Sanctuary, both in the UK and abroad.
He also deals with relinquishments, when people who can no longer look after their donkeys hand them over to the care of The Donkey Sanctuary. This can be hard. Owners may be parting with much loved animals due to ill-health, old age, relationship breakdown or financial difficulties. Mark explains, “When you’re dealing with animals, you’re going to the heart of the situation.”
All new Donkey Guardians attend training but the learning really starts once they have their donkeys. Mark is there to provide help and reassurance. He works with a broad range of clients. Some have no previous experience with equines while others have lots. He needs to be kind and patient, sometimes firm but never judgemental. He describes the approach as, “More of an arm around the shoulder. We’re not the donkey police, standing there with a clipboard”.
The support he gives is invaluable. People can call him if they’re worried about grazing, worming, feeding, weight management, training or behaviour. Sometimes he even helps out with land issues. He builds relationships with his clients, often working with families for years and watching their children grow up. He enjoys seeing inexperienced Guardians become confident and knowledgeable.
Working in the most densely populated part of the country, Mark spends a lot of time sitting in traffic but even then he’s taking calls. With a case load of 100 Donkey Guardians he’s grateful for the administrative support of Donkey Welfare Co-ordinator Annie and they have a much needed catch up every week. He puts in a lot of hours but says that’s by choice. He loves his job and finds helping people hugely rewarding.
He won’t tell me how many extra hours he works but assures me he takes evenings and weekends off (except for emergencies). He still rides his horse most days and enjoys playing tennis and travelling to new places. I wonder if the job ever gets lonely but he tells me, “I’m talking to people and meeting people all day and, although we’re on the front line, we have a huge team behind us.”
There are 22 Donkey Welfare Advisers covering all areas of the UK and Ireland. You need bags of energy, empathy and expertise – but I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Next time, I’ll report back from a visit with Mark to a family in West Sussex who became first-time Donkey Guardians in November 2016.
Copyright 2017 Amy Swift