In the midst of Palo Alto’s suburban monotony, visitors can get a unique taste of farm life thought to be long gone in Silicon Valley. Providing this opportunity is the Barron Park Donkey Foundation and its three equine residents — Perry, Buddy and April, who continue the longstanding and beloved presence of donkeys right in the heart of a bustling city.
The three iconic donkeys live at the Barron Park donkey pasture, located just next to Bol Park. The pasture has housed three generations of donkeys since 1934, when the Bol family brought a small herd to the pasture that would become Bol Park in 1974.
Since their arrival at the pasture, the donkeys have become local celebrities in their own right, drawing visits from local neighbors, students and patients and clinicians from nearby hospitals.
One donkey has even been forever immortalized in Hollywood. Perry, the longest resident of the pasture, served as the model for the character Donkey in the 2001 movie “Shrek,” Lead Handler Jennifer Kirati said. The fact has stuck with local residents, and many even refer to the donkeys as the “Shrek donkeys.”
Today, the donkeys are taken care of by the Barron Park Donkey Foundation, a nonprofit organization with nearly 30 volunteers. Volunteers feed, clean, walk and source medical care for the donkeys. They also run community engagement opportunities and fundraising initiatives to cover pasture maintenance and medical expenses. Finances are managed by their parent organization, the Palo Alto Humane Society.
The foundation is supported entirely by donations. Community members can make direct donations or purchase various items such as saddle bags and mugs from the organization.
According to Kiratli, donations are more needed now than ever before, as newcomer April suffers from a dangerous and costly hoof disorder. The disorder demands monthly treatments at the UC Davis Veterinary Hospital, Kiratli said, which in total may cost upwards of $10,000.
Nonetheless, Kiratli said that April, who arrived in 2020, has been a positive addition to the pasture. She also stressed that April likely would not have found such a caring home due to her condition.
Providing care for April is often challenging, but deciding to provide a home for April proved to be a wise choice for the community, Kiratli said. According to Kiratli, the donkeys have a naturally calming demeanor, which makes them popular outlets for people in stressful situations.
“We had a patient who was in spinal cord injury for a long, long stay [at the VA], and so he came out here every day to get a break,” Kiratli said. “Especially on the weekend, ER nurses and the nurses that are in high pressure jobs will come out here for a break.”
Henry M. Gunn High School physical education teacher Kimberly Sabbag first took her classes to visit the donkeys over a decade ago. Since then, it has become a routine activity.
The donkeys’ presence helps students to feel more connected with their community and develop a sense of what Palo Alto truly has to offer, according to Sabbag. She emphasized the natural sense of connection between two living creatures, such as the students and the donkeys.
“I think the visits also take the students outside of what they might be stressed about or thinking about,” she said. “Focusing on something like a cute donkey takes their mind off of a test they may have next period, or something else stressful in their life.”
Sabbag’s classes aren’t the only ones that visit the donkeys on a regular basis; junior Marcello Chang, for example, said he has gone to see the donkeys multiple times in his English class — an opportunity he has come to appreciate.
“The fact that I can see animals every day is really special,” Chang said. “I think it’s great that Gunn students have the opportunity to see donkeys. It’s a special connection.”
The donkeys are cherished by the community for their calm nature, but perhaps more than anything, because of their presence. It is rare for a city like Palo Alto to have a permanent animal attraction, Kiratli said, and that’s precisely what local residents have come to appreciate about the pasture.
“Not many neighborhoods have a donkey pasture in the middle of the local park,” Barron Park resident and Gunn junior Elise Brougham said. “It’s something unique and fun that we can just enjoy as a community.”