A DONKEY IN THE WOODS Onotherapy (Donkey-Assisted Therapy) for Autistic Children, Physically and Mentally Disabled People

Project location: Italy, Castiglione Olona (Varese)
Project start date: June 2014 - Project end date: December 2014
Project number: 2014-023
Beneficiary: Associazione Tutela Ammalati Psichici (A.T.A.P.)


The Association works with the Province of Varese, the Local Health Authority (ASL), the Court of Varese and the local Municipal Administrations providing support in the area of mental illness and intellectual disability (written proof can be provided upon request).
The Association has created and runs a daytime community centre "L'Incontro - moments of joy" on premises offered rent-free by the Municipal Administration of Castiglione Olona, Varese, situated in the same area as the daytime recreation centre for the elderly and the youth centre. L'Incontro is open every Saturday afternoon offering expressive, recreational and relational activities and music therapy under the supervision of a psychologist and with the support of entertainers and volunteers.

For many years a permanent fixture during the opening hours of the Centre was a dog (owned by one of the volunteers) who slowly became the Association's mascot and a games companion for our members (psychically or mentally disabled). This led to a spontaneous type of pet therapy that had positive effects on the socialization of even the most fragile personalities.
When this animal died, visitors to the Centre were extremely distressed, which led volunteers and relatives to analyze and evaluate the contribution of the animal's stable and well-defined presence in enriching the lives of the disabled visitors to the Centre, the housing residents or any other member of the disabled associations nearby.

About the same time the Association met Elisabetta, the mother of a wonderful child affected by Down syndrome, who had been forced to interrupt her child's equestrian therapy because she could no longer afford it.
This gave the Association the idea of asking the Municipal Administration of Castiglione Olona whether the Association could use, rent-free, a large woodland area where they already offer nature-themed creative workshops and horticultural therapy to school groups, and extend its use to an onotherapy as a donkey assisted activity centre with the purchase of two donkeys.
Donkeys are docile, intelligent, patient, slow, courageous, empathic and affectionate. Because donkeys help you to communicate in a deep, simple and sincere manner, based on spontaneity and games that lead to restoring personal confidence. Because donkeys are strong, but tame and never aggressive, they are independent and at the same time very cooperative animals.
The docile nature of the donkey makes it a particularly suitable species for animal assisted activities not only for those who suffer from affective and social difficulties, but also for the psychically ill, other people suffering from disabilities (physical and mental), the elderly, children and lonely, stressed or anxious people, too.
This project will help ATAP to confirm its importance in the south east area of the Varese province. With the aid of professionals in onotherapy and psychometrics ATAP will be happy to offer the service free of charge to the elderly (especially those who have started to show signs of cognitive deficiency - in collaboration with the Varese Alzheimer Association), to autistic children and to all residential and associative structures for the mentally/physically disabled and psychologically ill of the local area.
The project involves more than one area of interest to your Foundation: helping those belonging to disadvantaged groups (mental illness is often closely related to discrimination, loneliness and social marginalization), the protection and improvement of the natural environment (the awarding of social importance to an area that had been abandoned), and regarding health, introducing new members to the therapeutic importance of donkeys, which is a doctrine in other European countries but receives little if any consideration from the competent Italian and regional authorities.

At the moment, the area has been subject to requalification and the donkeys' stable has been built, entirely of wood, so that the impact on the ecological equilibrium of the wooded land is be very low, and the park has been entirely enclosed and will soon be enhanced by the purchase of benches, tables, and general garden furniture to replace the existing items that are worn-out and unfit for use due to a total lack of maintenance. Hand-made outdoor games will be realized or purchased to help stimulate sensory/mobility and space/time perceptions so as to create an environment (a mix of nature, animals and man-made articles) that stimulates the creativeness of the disabled people and encourages them to interact more with the psychometrician (imagine, for example, a path that goes to the centre of the park, where the visitor can walk barefoot over stony ground, then onto sandy ground, a grassy path, a bark covered path, or over big smooth stones).
The presence of donkeys will further stimulate a process of socialization and empowerment in the psychologically ill members of the Association (often unable to take part in productive work, and thus at serious risk of losing interest in everyday life): under qualified supervision they will be responsible for looking after the animals, grooming them, keeping them clean and, as part of maintaining and caring for the whole area (quite a large one!), for cutting the grass to make hay. The necessary tools and machinery will be provided by the Varese section of the A.N.A. (National Association of Italian Alpine Troops) or will be purchased with our own funds.
The essential component of the project is a large wooden structure in the middle of the area, which will serve as a reception centre for visitors, also offering the chance to socialize, and which can also be an infirmary or a shelter as needed (especially for disabled and fragile visitors) in case of bad weather. Without this construction the park would be bare and incomplete and the initiative would be worthless. For this reason the association is asking your Foundation for a suitable contribution towards the construction of it.

With this project, which received a grant from the Nando Peretti Foundation, the woodland park will become a more pleasant meeting place for the local people, a green place where children can have fun and play, a peaceful gathering place for all the inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas who like to get involved in a tangible experience of solidarity and love for nature and life. The onotherapy service could also become one of the therapies offered by the provincial welfare network and be sponsored by the Local Health Authorities, since they have shown interest in the idea; this confirms the positive attitude that local institutions have towards the project.

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