In 2011 when Steve Stiert’s daughter was a pre-veterinary student, she told her dad that she had joined the donkey club at school.
Stiert began sending her videos and photos of the adorable animals, to brighten up her day. “When I saw these donkeys, it just clicked with who I was,” he says to PEOPLE. “I had this epiphany that I would get donkeys.”
Fresh off a divorce, Stiert was an IBM software engineer who had never even owned a farm animal. But over the next few years, Stiert indeed ended up getting donkeys — 13 of them in fact: 10 miniatures, two standards and a zonkey (a hybrid donkey and zebra).
He transformed his Ulster Park, New York, backyard into a stable, and christened it Donkey Park.
The now 57-year-old shares his love of donkeys with the scores of people who visit Donkey Park on weekends through his 500-plus member Donkey Meetup, and through donkey therapy at nursing homes and schools for those with special needs.
“Donkeys are perhaps the most misunderstood and under appreciated of man’s domesticated animals,” Stiert says. “They are very sweet and calm and affectionate and intelligent. A donkey putting his head on you is the equivalent of a hug.”
“I would feel wrong if I didn’t pass it on,” Stiert says, “because it’s been that much of a positive thing for me.”
When Stiert was laid off a few years ago, he had the time and financial means, and with the help of an inheritance, to devote himself full time to his herd.
Not everyone understood his transformation. “People said, ‘Steve, if you are having a midlife crises, buy a boat or a sports car, you can sell those later, or at least slow down a little bit, get it out of your system.’ “
“It was never a mistake or a midlife crisis,” he says. “Being divorced gave me the freedom to get in touch with myself.”
During Stiert’s Meetup, known as the Hudson Valley Walk With Donkeys, he welcomes about 20 visitors at a time to walk, play and even cuddle with the donkeys.
The Meetup, Stiert discovered, became an unintended form of therapy for some.
“They are wrestling with something,” says Stiert. “They are exploring, there’s been a death, a divorce, something that shakes up their life a little bit.
“And the donkeys are very peaceful,” he adds, “and grounding.”
In early October, Stiert and a handful of his volunteers drove 50 miles south with four miniature donkeys to brighten up the spirits of nursing home residents at The New York State Veterans’ Home at Montrose
The pack included a black and white micro-miniature donkey named Dakota. At just 27 inches tall, Dakota’s gentle demeanor was that of a giant, cuddly dog. (Miniature donkeys stand up to three feet tall.)
The group met with about two dozen of the nursing home’s residents for several hours in an outdoor courtyard.
“Oh, do you want to come to my room?” Dolores Kavanagh, 84, says with a teasing voice to a miniature donkey named Stomper. “I don’t think they’d like that.”
Kavanagh strokes Stomper’s nose, and looks into his big brown eyes. Nearby, his brother Romper lazily munches on some hay. The other residents look on with interest.
“This is so unique to me,” Kavanagh says. “How do I explain this to all my friends? You have to see it to believe it.”