‘We developed a bond... so as he got better, I got better with him’

Jenny Howarth has spent the last few days on top of a stepladder painting stables in readiness for the grand opening of her very own donkey sanctuary next week.

Jennifer Howarth from Cridling Stubbs will see her dream come true when her donkey santuary and visitors centre opens later in the year (2015). Photo date: 21/07/15 Picture Ref: AB144b0715

But just seven years ago, life was very different for the 17-year-old, who lives with her family at Cridling Stubbs near Knottingley.

Following the trauma caused by an accident at school and the subsequent misdiagnosis of a broken foot which left her in acute pain, she contracted a condition called conversion syndrome. She was left unable to read, write or do even the simplest of sums.

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Jenny went from a bright, happy lively child to one who was afraid to let her mother out of her sight and had difficulty walking.

Her mother, Jacqueline, takes up the story.

“When Jenny was 10 years old she broke her foot but we were told it was ligament damage. It was misdiagnosed for ten weeks and we went backwards and forwards to the hospital. I was accused of being paranoid and it was not until I took her to see a private doctor that the broken bone was confirmed.

“She was in a plaster cast for six weeks and then went into physiotherapy but the trauma caused her whole body to develop hypersensitivity.

“She couldn’t bear me to touch her or comb her hair or even have a blanket on her skin.

“Then one day as I went to pick her up from school, she collapsed and lost the ability to read, write or spell.

“She couldn’t see properly and she couldn’t even walk for around 48 hours – her legs just refused to work.

“We took her to hospital and the doctors did lots of tests and after ruling out everything else they said it was probably her body’s reaction to the extreme pain and trauma of her accident.”

Jenny was taken out of school and taught at home for almost three years as she was unable to concentrate for long periods of time.

But then one day she began to show an interest in donkeys and her horse-loving aunts said they would get one for her.

Jacqueline said: “On the way to buy her one they saw a baby donkey and its mum being very cruelly treated so they dived in and bought the baby.

“As soon as Jenny say the donkey she just gelled with it, her whole focus was on him. She called him Buttons and just wanted to be with him all the time.

“Having to learn to look after him helped her along the road to recovery.

“It was amazing the effect it had on her.”

As Jenny began to get better it was apparent that the calming influence of the donkey had played an important part in her recovery.

Buttons was joined by another donkey, Jessica, and as people heard about their love of donkeys they were told of others needing care and they acquired more 
and more.

Jenny entered competitions at the Yorkshire Show and three years later she was well enough to go back to school and to begin the slow process of learning to read and write again.

She says “After I went back to school and was better, I said to my mum ‘I want to give something back to the donkeys who have helped me so much – I want to open a sanctuary’ and that’s where the idea came from

“ As well as giving something back to the donkeys I also want to help other people because I know how much the donkeys have helped me. I’d love for other people to get that feeling.

“There’s a lovely calmness about them.

“I am hoping that people of any age or disability can interact with them and spend time, grooming them and stroking them and spending time with them.”

Two of those currently living at the sanctuary are Bridget and Johnny, two former seaside donkeys who were rescued by Jenny and Jacqueline.

“Both had damaged feet,”says Jenny. “Bridget, who is an old lady of 36 has no teeth at all.

“ She came with her friend, Johnny. He’d been badly beaten and it took ages for us to be able to go near him and do things with him.

“He was really badly mistreated and he wouldn’t let me go into his stable at first. “Eventually we developed a really strong bond and as he got better I got better with him.”

There are now 14 donkeys and the sanctuary will be officially launched at a special open day on Saturday, August 8.

The event will run from 10am until 4pm and the centre will then be open Wednesday to Sunday.

“I want to open up the facility to people who have similar conditions to me because animals can help so much,” says Jenny.

Visitors will be able to take a walk around the site as well as getting the chance to meet the donkeys.

Jenny said: “The plan is for people to be able to come and play with the donkeys because they have a really calming effect.

“I want people to get the same happiness and enjoyment out of the animals as I have.”

“Everyone is welcome to come down and have a look at the donkeys and the work we do.”

Jenny will receive her GCSE results next month and hopes 
to go on to study creative writing, English literature, English language and business studies 
at St Wilfrid’s Catholic High School in Featherstone in September.

She has made a full recovery and her mum is exceptionally proud of the progress she has made.

“When she went back to school she had to learn everything again from scratch and when she left Wakefield Independent School this year she was head girl.

“It’s amazing how much she’s managed to learn. “She’s such 
a determined person and she has such a beautiful outlook on life.”

The Wonky Donkey Visitors’ Centre, Little Oaks Farm Donkey Sanctuary, Copcroft Lane, Criddling Stubbs, 01977 219924.