Free Things to Do in Manchester: The Donkey Sanctuary

Set in ten acres of land, the Donkey Sanctuary is an important satellite centre for the larger international animal welfare and rescue charity.

By Ben Brown | Last updated 16 February 2024

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Who could ever forget their first visit to a petting zoo as a kid? Or Blackpool Beach? Or how about watching Shrek for the first time?

These three things all have something in common – donkeys – and let me tell you, there’s A LOT that you don’t know about these brilliant, and often wildly misunderstood creatures.

In our eternal quest for things for you to do for free here in Manchester, we discovered the truly wonderful Donkey Sanctuary. Set in ten acres of land, it’s an important satellite centre for the larger international animal welfare and rescue charity.

The Donkey Sanctuary has stood at the heart of the Gorton community for 18 years now, and in all that time they’ve seen countless donkeys pass through their doors on their way to their new and ‘forever’ homes. The charity itself has been around since 1969, when Dr Elisabeth Svenden was running a hotel in Devon and she bought her first donkey, Naughty Face, for £45 from an advert in the newspaper. 

Since then, over 20,000 donkeys have been looked after, and the hard work is still underway today. In fact, when I spoke to Melanie McComb, the Centre Manager in Manchester, she told me that they’re fully expecting to see an influx due to the current cost of living crisis…

“Donkeys are not cheap animals, they require specialist care and have real specialist needs. They’re not waterproof like horses, so can suffer from rain burn, plus there’s dentists, physiotherapy, and that’s on top of the food, bedding and all of that stuff.” So, it’s more important than ever that people know all about the dedicated work that the team do at the sanctuary – and how we can help.

When I first arrived at the Sanctuary on a foggy Friday morning and sat down with Melanie, I found myself blurting out: “Why donkeys?!” Thankfully, Melanie had probably heard this question a few times before and tackled it like a pro…

“Why donkeys? Because they are one of the most misunderstood animals in the world. They’re used for hard labour because of a unique characteristic of their genetics which doesn’t actually allow them to show any sort of pain or suffering.”

“They’re often bought as cheaper, cuter versions of horses, and their needs are not met. Because they’re from Africa or Asia, they’re also just not meant to be stuck here in the UK or Manchester.”

“But the biggest reason for ‘why donkeys’ is that they are sentient creatures who have the same emotional part of the brain that humans do. They feel the same as us. They grieve and they always need companionship.”

The sheer amount of work that they do down at The Donkey Sanctuary is astounding, from rescuing mistreated or abandoned animals, to rehabilitation, conservation and on-going education and training, not to mention the often years-long process of re-homing the animals.

“Re-homing is very different to what you would do with a dog or a cat. Our welfare teams will go and work with them, offering free training and support on getting the house and land right.”

“Donkeys can live into their late 50s, and can sometimes outlive their owners, so the animals that we place in families never truly come out of our care for the entirety of their lives.”

But it’s not just donkeys that are cared for at the Sanctuary. In fact, the centre works very closely with people in the local community – offering up a unique experience to people who may be having difficulties at home.

Melanie explained how donkeys, as prey animals, are perfectly adapted to “feeling the energy in the environment” and they can judge people almost instantaneously. If they feel safe, they’ll come up to you and see who you are.

“They have the ability to mirror people and feel the energies that we’re bringing in,” and as a result, the animals are used throughout the week with ‘therapy’ – helping people with mental health issues or whose “lives are in chaos”.

“We work with people in the NHS and the North West Ambulance Service, offering trauma care to paramedics, and veterans. We also work with local schools with young people that are struggling with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.”

“And we work with people at risk of crime, victim support and domestic violence. All of our therapy work is completely free.”

I discovered this later when I was taken around the enclosure, but the donkeys just seem to emanate an aura of pure peace and tranquillity. Everything feels calm and safe. It’s a wonderful experience, and it’s not hard to see how these warm and beautiful animals can help people in such a unique way.

The Sanctuary is open throughout the week for therapy sessions, but every Saturday (and the first Sunday of the month) they open their doors to the public for FREE – meaning you can head down and take a tour, chat to and stroke some of the donkeys and even meet their two most well-known residents – Henry and Tiny Tim.

These two donkeys are Manchester’s famous adoptable pair, bringing in some much-needed funds into the centre from people and families across Greater Manchester. You can adopt one of them from just £3 a month and this goes directly into the many vital services and activities that the centre provides.

I asked the staff if they had a favourite donkey and was quickly rebuffed: “none of us are allowed our favourite donkeys!”, but that doesn’t stop me from having one. As well as spending a bit of time with Henry, I also became acquainted with Al and a special little fella named Dennis – who is an absolute legend and left me feeling calm, serene, and unimaginably happy. 

After what felt like the best wellness session of my life, I wandered back into the centre itself to get myself ready to leave. But not before I bought an outstanding bobble hat from the gift shop, kindly knitted, and donated by someone in the local area.

Now, you may have of heard of this hat already. I’ve worn it a couple of times in the city, and it’s already got a reputation. I must say, it’s the best hat I’ve ever owned and probably the best hat in the world. If you want one – you’re going to have to head down to the Donkey Sanctuary ASAP.

My visit not only put a massive smile on my face, but it also opened my eyes to this massively misunderstood and beautiful animal. I cannot recommend a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary enough – you should get there this weekend if you can, and definitely adopt one of them. Or buy a hat.


The Donkey Sanctuary

Open to the public every Saturday and the first Sunday of each month.
Saturdays: 10am – 12noon and 1pm – 3pm
First Sunday of the month: 10am – 12noon and 1pm – 3pm