“Hello, girls,” said Ken Parker ’62, throwing open the blue trailer door. “Are you ready to go to work?”
The 75-year-old mostly retired Presbyterian minister had parked his Toyota truck—license plate: MINIDONK—at the curb before the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. The girls in question were two big-eared, doe-eyed miniature donkeys, Celeste and Fey. Their job this afternoon: to visit residents, mainly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, at the Middlebury nursing home.
For more than 10 years, Parker has been trotting out—literally—his miniature donkeys as therapy animals. He and volunteers visit nursing homes and grieving children. They also run a program that allows children with developmental and emotional disabilities learn how to care for the animals. To his knowledge, Thera-Pets, his Peru, N.Y., nonprofit, was the first organization of its kind to use miniature donkeys as therapeutic animals in the U.S.
“They’re a wonderful, wonderful animal,” said Parker, brushing a bit of errant hay from dark, svelte Celeste’s coat. Sure, Parker acknowledged, therapy dogs are far more prevalent. “But give me a hundred dogs and a hundred donkeys, and the donkeys will take it every time.”
Parker and volunteer Candyce Trombley led the donkeys into a small courtyard where the residents, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, sat in wheelchairs and rockers. Parker launched into his primer on miniature donkeys, chatting with the residents and answering questions—but the real stars of the show were Celeste and Fey.
“You’re very beautiful,” one woman cooed. “Yes, you are. You’re a very good girl.” Another woman pressed her forehead to the donkey’s face and stroked Celeste’s long, tapered ears.
“People say, ‘Kiss my ass,’” quipped Parker after a resident planted a kiss on a donkey’s nose. “I do all the time.”
Ministering to the sick, disabled, and grieving comes naturally to Parker, who went to Princeton Theological Seminary following his graduation from Middlebury. (He also received a DMin from Sewanee.) Parker headed the Presbyterian Church in Peru, for more than three decades. When he retired in 2003, he briefly considered “playing golf and reading books,” but he jokes now that retirement “didn’t take.” In addition to his work with Thera-Pets, Parker spends Sunday mornings preaching to two tiny congregations.
“Once he retired, he couldn’t give up helping people,” said his wife, Helle Thomsen Parker ’62. His work with Thera-Pets is just “an extension of ministering.”
“He probably has one of the kindest souls, the gentlest souls, I have ever known,” said Trombley, who has known Parker since he moved to Peru more than 40 years ago. “There’s no pretense. What you see is what you get.”
The Parkers still live in Peru on a farm they named Butternut Ridge. He started keeping donkeys around when he retired, following a mission trip to Jamaica, where he fell in love with the animals. Today his menagerie includes 10 donkeys, as well as a smattering of cows, alpacas, chickens and other fowl, and occasionally pigs.
A few days after visiting Helen Porter, Parker was back in the North Country—and swapping his Sunday morning vestments for a Thera-Pets polo shirt for an afternoon with developmentally disabled children. By mid-afternoon, about a dozen kids had convened at the farm of a neighbor, another Thera-Pets volunteer, down the road from Parker’s home. Normally they would meet at Parker’s farm, but today they were taking a special walk.
They played games, sat quietly as Parker told a story, then raced to pair up with their donkeys. The gaggle of kids, parents, and volunteers led the donkeys on a walk through a state park, which culminated at a playground.
“It’s the best thing for both of my boys,” said mother Mary Prial, holding a donkey’s lead as her two boys, seven-year-olds Luke and Sebastian, tore off for the playground. Sebastian is a typical kid, but Luke is hearing impaired and developmentally delayed and was terrified of animals before he began working with Parker’s donkeys. Prial really likes that in the Thera-Pets program there aren’t any distinctions drawn between the two kids.
“Here they’re not different,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. I love seeing both of my boys having a good time.”
Kathryn Flagg ’08 is a freelance writer living in Shoreham, Vermont.