Executive goes from boardroom to barnyard
Donkey Sanctuary has a new boss
GUELPH — On a day she could have spent in the company of famed British physicist Stephen Hawking in Waterloo, Katharin Harkins was instead being charmed by a donkey named Summer.
Harkins, former director of communications and outreach for the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing, had met Hawking at a reception some time earlier. And she was proud of the role her team had played in promoting the $160 million quantum-nano centre that Hawking helped to open last week.
Nevertheless, Harkins, now executive director of the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, located south of Guelph in Puslinch Township, was content with the company she was keeping that day. On a hilly, 100-acre farm, she was thinking about how she could now apply her skills to the job of protecting donkeys that have been neglected or abused, or whose owners can no longer look after them.
It was a winding road that led her to this position, Harkins mused in an interview.
Before coming to the University of Waterloo in 2009, she was global vice-president, public relations and communications for Sun Life Financial, responsible for communications, government relations, philanthropy and community relations.
In total, Harkins, who has a master’s degree in journalism, spent 20 years in the corporate insurance world.
They were great jobs with great pay, but when Sandra Pady, the donkey sanctuary’s founder and executive director, announced that she was retiring, Harkins, 59, didn’t hesitate.
On June 5, she said goodbye to business suits and boardrooms and headed for the farm.
“Animals have given me so very much all of my life . . . so much love, have asked for so little, and I now have this wonderful opportunity to try to give something back to animals,” Harkins says.
“In that sense, I am here because I love animals and believe in animal welfare.”
And donkeys, she adds, hold a special place.
“They try so hard, they have often worked so hard because they just keep on going, they forge bonds with each other and somehow with humans.”
As Harkins spoke, a turkey vulture circled the pond at the bottom of the sanctuary property. On a hill, a few donkeys ambled out of the sanctuary’s barn, built about a year ago to keep the animals warm and dry in winter. Nearby, three donkeys stood in the “Weight Watchers” paddock. In another paddock, 42-year-old Summer ambled over for a pat.
A donkey’s braying broke the stillness.
“I love the sound of braying,” says Harkins, who is wearing donkey earrings and a donkey T-shirt.
“It’s joyous. It’s loud. It’s beautiful. It’s their communication system and I like communication,” she says, laughing.
About eight years ago, while she was living and working in Toronto, Harkins visited the sanctuary for the first time on the recommendation of a friend. She felt an immediate connection with the “gentle, stoic and curious creatures.”
She made a donation to the sanctuary and began sponsoring the care of several donkeys that live there. She put donkey photographs on the wall in her university office. She became fascinated by the stories she heard about the sanctuary.
One day, she relates, a special-education teacher, now a volunteer at the sanctuary, visited with a group of children with developmental challenges. During the day, a girl with cerebral palsy and a pronounced startle reflex fell down. After the girl was helped to her feet, two donkeys walked behind her and stayed there, acting like a “net” and supporting the girl with their bodies whenever she needed it.
“My theory is that donkeys bond with people they trust,” Harkins says.
Another day, a girl with mental health challenges hesitated to get involved with the donkeys. “She said she couldn’t imagine they’d like her since, ‘Nobody likes me,’” Harkins recalls the girl saying.
At that moment, a donkey put its head on the girl’s shoulder. And the two stayed like that for the rest of her visit.
While she enjoyed her university job, Harkins felt the pull to make a difference in a not-for-profit charity.
In a way, she’s coming full circle, she says. While her choice might appear “odd” to the onlooker, it’s really not so unusual given her roots, Harkins says.
She was raised as a Quaker, the daughter of parents who moved to Canada from the United States in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War. Harkins was six when she accompanied her parents on a peace march for the first time.
Her father taught at the University of Winnipeg and then at the University of Guelph before leaving to start a goat cheese dairy.
Harkins began her working life in jobs with grassroots, not-for-profit organizations whose projects ranged from providing homes for ex-psychiatric patients to helping people with legal difficulties. She worked with a Quaker justice organization.
After her daughter was born, she joined Mutual Life of Canada (now Sun Life Financial) in a junior writing position.
At the time she was a single parent and appreciated the stable work life. Now, years later, she’s ready to use her skills to help the donkeys, some of which were rescued from slaughterhouses.
One donkey at the sanctuary, named Orly, started her life as a wild burro in Arizona. She was captured and sent to a donkey breeding farm. When it closed, she was shipped to an auction firm and faced possible slaughter. That’s when Pady arranged for Orly to come to the sanctuary.
Animals come to the sanctuary from across Canada and the United States. At present, it has 70 donkeys, as well as mules and hinnies, which are the offspring of donkeys and horses. Thirty more animals are the sanctuary’s responsibility, but living on foster farms.
The sanctuary’s annual operating budget is $600,000, which is funded by donations, Harkins says. There are five full-time and three part-time employees, plus about 120 volunteers. A group of 40 volunteers comes regularly to do animal care and cleanup.
It’s a labour of love, says Judy Schenk of Kitchener, who volunteers at least twice a week.
“It feels like a privilege to be around them,” she says. “Being with them I find healing and calming.”
Harkins hopes to attract more supporters, including some corporate sponsors so that the sanctuary can grow and have a sustainable financial future.
On average, it costs about $1,300 to house, feed and provide basic vet care to a healthy donkey for a year. But many donkeys arrive with health problems, which increase the costs. If they aren’t already gelded, that gets done as well.
Harkins also wants to boost the sanctuary’s educational efforts, in part to correct “the very wrong image” of donkeys as stupid and silly and ignorant.
“They have given the world a lot through centuries and in many countries received little or nothing for their incredibly hard work,” she says.
In short, she’s making plans for many more people to know about the sanctuary and form connections with the animals.
“I’m going to be the loud donkey lady,” Harkins says, smiling. “I think there’s a story out here.”
• The Donkey Sanctuary ( www.thedonkeysanctuary.ca) is open to visitors on Sundays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., until Oct. 31. It will also be open on the four Sundays in December.