Donkey ‘therapy’ offers support to young cancer patients

A pair of young cancer survivors supported by CLIC Sargent gained support with their emotional growth from an unlikely source – donkeys.

Donkey ‘therapy’ offers support to young cancer patients

The Donkey Sanctuary Belfast knows that the calming presence of the donkeys can help vulnerable people develop their life skills, emotional growth and personal awareness.

The Donkey Sanctuary has joined forces with CLIC Sargent to see if the treatment – called Donkey-Assisted Therapy - could have a positive impact on young adult patients looking to process their experiences and develop life skills.

The pilot scheme, held in the Donkey Sanctuary in Antrim, saw former patients Annaliese Laffan and Leighann Hickinson take part in a nine week Donkey Facilitated Learning programme. The focus of the programme is developing critical life skills in vulnerable people utilizing mutually enriching (donkey and human) interaction sessions.

The hour and a half long interactive sessions take place in a variety of spaces, both inside the arena and outside within a special area that means nature can enhance their experience, with specially trained donkeys. Annaliese and Leighann got to experience sensory grooming, approaching and connecting with donkeys, observing donkeys and their behavior and mindful leading.

Annaliese, 20, was diagnosed with cancer after falling off a jeep and suffering a brain injury while in Australia on a gap year. 

Following the accident she was in an induced coma, which led to the discovery of lumps on her neck. During her rehabilitation, she was sent for an emergency biopsy and learned that she had thyroid cancer.

“It was such a hard time,” she said. “My parents actually heard the news first. I was struggling to process things with the injury. My parents had to sit me down and talk me through it. It was a horrible shock.”

Annaliese went through grueling treatment, which was repeated when the cancer returned a second time. Throughout her treatment she was supported by Simon Darby, her CLIC Sargent Young Person’s Social Worker. Following her second bout of treatment, he asked her if she would like to get involved in the pilot.

She said: “At first I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t know how it would work, and I was also worried about getting emotional. I had been pressing a lot down inside and it worried me to let it out.

“You work with these calming animals and we would talk about our experiences and how we felt. Before you know it you are talking about your feelings in a way you haven’t expected. It was a very emotional experience.”

Leighann, 22, was diagnosed when she was 20 after developing a weakness in her right side. Doctors later found a brain tumour, which was later found to be malignant. She underwent surgery, followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

She said: “I think people need more emotional support when they finish treatment and there’s time for it to hit home. Simon was basically always there for me like a friend and helped me get what I needed financially during and after treatment with grants and other things.

“When he mentioned the donkey programme I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went along, not thinking it would work. I find it really hard to talk about my feelings anyway.

“It just gave us a way to distract ourselves with the animals. They help you to relax and to talk about things. I ended up talking about so much. It felt good to talk about these things and this really helped.

“The presence of the donkeys really helps in a way that is hard to explain – you understand when you do it.”

Simon Darby said: “Every week I watched in awe at something I knew very little about. As the weeks went on I experienced goose-bump moments where the young people were talking about issues that many cancer survivors would struggle with years after treatment.

“Leighann and Annaliese have transformed. Having supported them from the beginning of their cancer journeys I can see them now starting to move forward with plans for the future, I can now see their self-confidence and self-belief for the first time.

“They took a chance by becoming involved in this pilot group even though we didn’t know what the outcome would be. But that chance was certainly worth it and now both Annaliese and Leighann have signed up to new courses to work in education, following the process.”

“CLIC Sargent’s ‘Hidden Costs’ report this summer highlighted the emotional and mental impact of cancer on young patients, with 70% of young patients surveyed saying they experienced depression during treatment and 42% having panic attacks.”

“We would be very keen to look at further possibilities within CLIC Sargent for Donkey Facilitated Learning alongside The Donkey Sanctuary.”

Caron Whaley, director of donkey-assisted therapy at The Donkey Sanctuary, says: “Our staff facilitate the programme but donkeys do the work – their bond with humans is independent, intuitive, autonomous; without anthropomorphising donkeys, their connection with people both teaches us about them, and teaches us about ourselves. Vulnerable children and adults learn from their physical and emotional experience with these exceptional creatures.”

For more information, an interview or images please contact Nick Edmondson on 020 8752 2856 or email Outside office hours please call 08448 481189.

For an interview, further information or images, please contact Nicola Ash, PR Manager, The Donkey Sanctuary on 01395 573097/ 07970 927778 (including out of hours) or email 

About cancer in children and young people

Today, 11 more children and young people in the UK will hear the devastating news that they have cancer. Treatment normally starts immediately, is often given many miles from home and can last for up to three years. Although survival rates are over 80%, cancer remains the single largest cause of death from disease in children and young people in the UK.

About CLIC Sargent

When cancer strikes young lives CLIC Sargent helps families limit the damage cancer causes beyond their health. CLIC Sargent is the UK’s leading charity for young cancer patients and their families. We provide specialist support, to help and guide each young cancer patient and their family. We will fight tirelessly for them, individually, locally and nationally. For more information, visit

About The Donkey Sanctuary

The Donkey Sanctuary was established as a charity in 1969 by Dr Elisabeth Svendsen. Her devotion to championing the cause of donkeys is the foundation for the international charity it is today. The Donkey Sanctuary’s vision is a world where donkeys and mules live free from suffering, and their contribution to humanity is fully valued. The Donkey Sanctuary has 10 sanctuaries around the UK and Europe providing lifelong care to over 6,000 donkeys and mules. It runs a Donkey-Assisted Therapy programme across the UK, which benefits children and adults with additional needs by allowing them to connect with donkeys on an emotional and physical level. It also operates in many countries around the world, including Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Ethiopia, Romania, Portugal and India. Donkeys are stoical creatures and those who depend on them for their livelihood often take advantage of their hardworking traits. The Donkey Sanctuary’s outreach embraces veterinary care, nutrition, housing, working hours, weight of load and welfare-friendly harness and cart design. It is collaborative in all its activities, working through a network of partner organisations, individuals and communities.    

Note to sub editors

Please note that the name ‘CLIC Sargent’ should not be abbreviated to CLIC, and that the word ‘CLIC’ should always appear in capitals, as above.