What’s up doc? How Donkey therapy is easing Spain medics’ stress

Walking into a dusty paddock, a young nurse is quickly surrounded by a group of donkeys gently nudging her for attention as she strokes their soft noses and feeds them carrots.

What's up doc? How Donkey therapy is easing Spain medics' stress
Photos by Cristina Quicler / AFP

Walking into a dusty paddock, a young nurse is quickly surrounded by a group of donkeys gently nudging her for attention as she strokes their soft noses and feeds them carrots.   

When someone places a 10-day-old colt in her arms, Monica Morales squeals with delight, visibly relaxed after a few hours unwinding at El Burrito Feliz – “The Happy Little Donkey” –  an association offering free donkey therapy
sessions to medics fighting the virus.   

Known as animal-assisted therapy, such encounters can help with a range of physical and mental disorders, including stress, depression and anxiety.    

Although such therapy is more associated with horses, experts say donkeys are better suited to helping mental or emotional disorders given their gentle nature and intuitive respect for personal space.

“The situation is quite overwhelming, what we went through before is now happening again,” says Morales, 25, who spent months working in a Madrid hospital when the pandemic hit. She is now based in the south as Spain faces a
second wave.   

“There are more and more patients, and growing tensions among colleagues so being here with these donkeys is really helping.”   

Located by a sprawling forest on the edge of Andalusia's Donana National Park in southern Spain, El Burrito Feliz is a non profit association with 23 donkeys that have worked with Alzheimer's patients and children with problems.

The “Doctor Donkey” project began in late June as a way of offering respite to frontline workers battling a virus that has killed some 33,400 people, infected more than 900,000, and left medics traumatised and exhausted.

Japanese forest therapy

“The huge stress created through the daily struggle with Covid-19 exhausts them, so here they can be strengthened through therapy with the donkeys,” explains Luis Bejarano, 57, who runs El Burrito Feliz (Pictured above).

“They can recharge their batteries to keep fighting another day.”   

Bejarano says the idea came from a book about Japan's therapeutic forests where people spend time among trees to reduce stress and depression as an alternative to therapy.

“The situation generates a lot of anxiety and stress because of the risk of getting infected, or passing it on to colleagues, family members or other patients who are more fragile than usual,” says 31-year-old oncologist Mari Paz Lopez.

And the risk of falling ill is very real, with one in 10 of Spain's healthcare workers getting infected — twice that of the general population and one of the highest rates in the world.   

“We've not been offered any psychological help although I know it exists in other places,” says Lopez who works in the southern city of Jaen and heard about the donkey therapy through television.

After an hour wandering through the forest with a donkey called Magallanes, she admits to feeling a lot more relaxed.

“They're animals that inspire a lot of tenderness and that generates a lot of emotional well-being.. and you forget about the day-to-day. I'd definitely recommend it.”

Physiological changes

After befriending one of the donkeys, a visitor will go on a guided walk and when confident, they can go back into the forest alone with the donkey and stay as long as they like.

Back at base camp, they prepare food for the animals, and then there is the option of a “donkey bath” — entering the paddock for an immersive experience with the herd.

“Donkeys are very relatable animals and doing it in a natural environment increases the benefits,” says psychologist Maria Jesus Arque, who consulted on the project.

By being in a forest and having contact with an animal, “something happens that allows you to express yourself with another being that does not judge,” she told AFP.

Studies show that animal-assisted therapy triggers changes at a physiological level, activating oxytocin, conected to experiencing pleasure, increasing endorphins and reducing cortisol in the blood which is a product of stress, she said.

“And a 30-minute walk in a natural environment, like a forest, changes the mood.”

Painful memories

At her surgery in Madrid, Dr Nieves Dominguez Aguero, 49, has a pencil sketch of a nurse nuzzling up to a donkey by Cuban graphic artist Ramses Morales Izquierdo as a reminder of her visit in summer.

Talking about the horrific memories of spring still moves her to tears as she recalls patients left in the corridors because of the lack of beds and those who died without being able to see their loved ones.

“It's very hard, not only because of the pandemic and the infection itself, but because of people's situations. Unlike in hospital, when you're a family doctor, you know all about these people, their lives and families.”

Spending a few hours with the donkeys was surprisingly helpful.   

“It was wonderful, really great,” she laughs. “Being with the animals helps you relax a bit and the forest is spectacular. It's just a shame it's so far away.”

So far, 25 doctors and nurses have visited the project, although the pace has slowed as cases have spiralled and Spain's medics have found themselves battling one of the highest infection rates in the European Union.

Although the project was only supposed to run until November, Bejarano is extending it and even considering installing lodgings so people can stay overnight.

“It might go on for years. Let's hope not but if that's what's coming, we must accept it.”

By AFP's Hazel Ward and Jorge Guerrero

READ ALSO: Free holidays in Ibiza offered to healthcare heroes across Europe

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Lengthy waiting times at Danish hospitals not going away yet: minister

Danish Minister for the Interior and Health Sophie Løhde has warned that, despite increasing activity at hospitals, it will be some time before current waiting lists are reduced.

Lengthy waiting times at Danish hospitals not going away yet: minister

The message comes as Løhde was set to meet with officials from regional health authorities on Wednesday to discuss the progress of an acute plan for the Danish health system, launched at the end of last year in an effort to reduce a backlog of waiting times which built up during the coronavirus crisis.

An agreement with regional health authorities on an “acute” spending plan to address the most serious challenges faced by the health services agreed in February, providing 2 billion kroner by the end of 2024.

READ ALSO: What exactly is wrong with the Danish health system?

The national organisation for the health authorities, Danske Regioner, said to newspaper Jyllands-Posten earlier this week that progress on clearing the waiting lists was ahead of schedule.

Some 245,300 operations were completed in the first quarter of this year, 10 percent more than in the same period in 2022 and over the agreed number.

Løhde said that the figures show measures from the acute plan are “beginning to work”.

“It’s positive but even though it suggests that the trend is going the right way, we’re far from our goal and it’s important to keep it up so that we get there,” she said.

“I certainly won’t be satisfied until waiting times are brought down,” she said.

“As long as we are in the process of doing postponed operations, we will unfortunately continue to see a further increase [in waiting times],” Løhde said.

“That’s why it’s crucial that we retain a high activity this year and in 2024,” she added.

Although the government set aside 2 billion kroner in total for the plan, the regional authorities expect the portion of that to be spent in 2023 to run out by the end of the summer. They have therefore asked for some of the 2024 spending to be brought forward.

Løhde is so far reluctant to meet that request according to Jyllands-Posten.