Running an adoption facility and sanctuary for donkeys is a very difficult job. Perhaps it’s a good thing for the donkeys that Ron King didn’t know how difficult the job would be when he got started. Luckily, though, this has been one of the most fulfilling things he’s ever done, even if it isn’t a life he ever would have imagined for himself.
“I’ve always liked animals, but I’ve never been an animal person,” King explains. “I never in a million years planned to help them. And so, you know, until 24 months ago, my interaction with animals was pretty limited.”
If we rewind this story a few years, we find King living in New York and managing several big-name magazines, including InStyle, Home, Southern Living, and Coastal Living. He wore Gucci, traveled to Milan for fashion shows, and just generally lived the high life.
When Meredith Corp. purchased Time Inc. in 2017, King accepted a package to leave the company and became a freelancer. But freelance work dried up quickly when the pandemic began just a couple of years later, leaving him unsure of what to do next.
Then King’s friend of 20-plus years, Phil Selway, offered him a short-term gig selling a large plot of land in northern California, so he picked up and moved to Hopland, CA, expecting to be there only a few short months before returning to the world of media. But then something miraculous happened.
“I experienced serenity for the first time in several decades,” King recalls. “I was just walking around this empty property and sort of felt it. It’s such a beautiful part of the world.”
In addition, a TikTok video King viewed while working on his tan poolside further changed his perspective. When he came across a video a woman had posted about the inhumane slaughter of donkeys for ejiao, a type of non-proven vanity-based Chinese medicine that is highly popular right now, he felt an emotional pull toward the animals.
“I don’t know why I saw this video, but I was really moved by how upset she was. And so, while I was laying out by the pool, I googled, ‘Why are people slaughtering donkeys?’ and read about the skin trade in Asia and donkeys being stolen from farmers in Africa,” says King. “It’s pretty awful, and not very many people are talking about it.”
Part of the problem, it seems, is that donkeys don’t hold much monetary value for most of the human race.
“They don’t win Kentucky Derbies, they don’t feed a food pipeline, and this idea that they’re kind of useless to humans from a financial point of view, I think, has caused us to turn a blind eye to four million donkeys a year being slaughtered,” says King.
He began to realize he could make a difference in the world by saving donkeys from slaughter – and in the process, he could go from merely enjoying his life to finding true joy in a life of outward impact.
One of the main reasons King decided to focus on saving donkeys was because of their unique limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotion and controls the fight-or-flight response.
“The limbic system of a donkey is about the same size as that of a human. So they have a very large emotional capacity, and it’s very obvious when you’re with them – they want to be with you, they want to be on your side,” says King.
“Hollywood and cartoons over the decades have painted donkeys as stubborn and dumb, and they’re the exact opposite. They’re very smart and they are very cool.”
Now that King had found an idea he was passionate about, he had to sell it to the owner of the property.
Selway had originally purchased the land King was trying to sell for use as a farm animal sanctuary, but the idea had failed. Selway was now trying to climb out from under the liability that his dream of owning a farm animal sanctuary had caused him. King had little hope of convincing Selway to revive the dream.
All the same, King believed he could make something of it, so he gathered his courage and presented a business plan to Selway for how he could turn the land into a donkey sanctuary.
“He was so shocked that those words were coming from me that he couldn’t really object. I think, had he had his wits about him, this may not have ever happened, but he was completely caught off guard, and he agreed.”
And so Oscar’s Place was born.
King started with three original rescue donkeys – Goose, Pickles, and Shadow – and immediately “fell madly in love” with them.
“Their mothers were bought at the auction by kill buyers and taken to slaughter and separated from their babies, so their babies were separated way too young,” says King. The age of these foals allowed them to develop a special sort of parent-child bond with King, and he was smitten.
“And now we’re 23 months in, and we’ve saved 183 donkeys,” he says.
69 plaques on the “Wall of Love” represent all of the donkeys that have found their permanent homes since the organization began, including the eight permanent residents of Oscar’s Place (Goose, Pickles, Shadow, and a few others who will stick around due to their age, health conditions, or because they’re “staff picks”). The remaining animals are still waiting to find their forever homes.
“I hope that by the time we’re done, we run out of wall space,” says King.
Oscar’s Place – named after Selway’s beloved deceased cat – now houses around 100 donkeys at a time (98 at the time of writing). The organization accepts surrendered donkeys and also rescues donkeys from a livestock auction in Bowie, Texas.
King believes livestock auctions in most other U.S. states are usually selling donkeys to people who will actually use them to do work or as companion animals. But in southern Texas, that’s generally not the case. It’s illegal to slaughter donkeys in the U.S., but it’s legal in Mexico, so many of the donkeys that go to auction in Bowie will end up in the slaughterhouse.
As King says, “Bowie is the southernmost livestock auction in the United States, and so the donkeys that don’t get rescued or bought there get shipped the next day to slaughter across the Mexican border. And I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”
Oscar’s Place also works to save donkeys before they even make it to the auction. King says there are many donkey owners who put their animals on the auction when they can no longer care for them or no longer have need of them, because they think they have no other option. King is working to get in touch with those donkey owners before they make the fateful decision to put their animals on the auction and convince them to place their donkeys at the owner surrender village at Oscar’s Place instead. King believes this project helps prevent some of the emotional trauma the donkeys go through at auction.
“Once you’ve made it here, we will do everything in our power to keep you safe, healthy, and happy for the rest of our your life. That’s our mission, and that’s what we focus on,” says King. He has very strict adoption policies to help ensure all the donkeys are given the best life possible.
Of course, running Oscar’s Place has certainly presented its challenges. King reports that the operating budget to care for 100 donkeys is $1.4 million, and keeping it going involves the coordination of staffing, facility maintenance, farrier care, medical care, social media, digital marketing, donor communications, construction projects, the formation of fire and evacuation plans, and more. King has run some large businesses, but this one has proven to be the most complicated.
“Running this organization is very much like a Silicon Valley startup,” he says. “I think that when you’re trying to get something off the ground, 150% is demanded from everybody, and it’s scary and it’s hard.”
Even the best parts of the job can be the worst in some respects:
“Every time we’ve adopted out a donkey, and we’ve adopted out 61 donkeys to date, I end up on the couch in the fetal position, because the only way to properly heal these donkeys emotionally is to love them back to emotional health,” says King. “And by doing that, you fall in love with them. And then you find them a forever home, which is definitely in their best interest, but it’s very hard to say goodbye.”
But, of course, all the effort is worth it in the end. King and his staff members get as much love back from the donkeys as they put in, and they find joy in watching the donkeys play and interact with one another. The donkeys, for their part, love playing with toys, going for walks, playing “football,” and following each other and their human caregivers around.
More than anything, King wants to spread awareness of how amazing donkeys are and encourage more people to help them.
“I’m just really committed to raising awareness of how cool they are and and their current plight,” he says. “Just please find a donkey rescue and support them.”