Port Stephens may be the natural home of the cute and cuddly koala, but for 50 years it has acted as the adopted home for hundreds of rescued donkeys cared for by a dedicated family across two properties in the Clarence Town region.
Jo-Anne Kokas (OAM), now aged in her 70s, got her first job at the age of 15 tending to a variety of donkeys which lived on her grandfather's cattle ranch and rodeo in western Sydney.
She developed a strong rapport with the animals and rescued her first donkey in 1972. In 1990, Jo-Anne, along with family and a few dedicated volunteers, founded the not-for-profit charity organisation, The Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary Inc.
After some years working from their farm in Peats Ridge, the Kokas family purchased a 12-acre property at Glen William, near Clarence Town, in 1999 where they built the hospital and ICU facility and laid the foundations to what would become Australia's foremost rescue centre for sick and abandoned donkeys.
Another larger property to cater for recovering and healthier donkeys was added 10km away through the generosity of public money.
With no government funding, the sanctuary is today reliant on the dedication and devotion of Jo-Anne and Alex's daughter Sandy and her husband Barry Magnusson, plus the generosity of donors.
"Currently we have around 80 donkeys in care, with almost as many fostered out to families, mostly as companions or being used as guardians," Sandy Kokas-Magnusson said.
"We are on call 24 hours a day. We offer food, shelter, refuge, blankets and care for abandoned, lonely and sick donkeys. Most of the animals come to our attention through the public, RSPCA, police or rangers. On occasions we have to organise collection from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres away."
The cost to run the sanctuary's two properties is approximately $20,000 a month.
"This includes feed, medicine, farrier, dental, transport and fuel costs. Unfortunately, most of our regulars donors have passed on, but we are grateful for those who continue to donate anywhere from $5 to $50 a month and we are always looking for new ways to raise funds," Sandy said.
"Fortunately, most of our coats and rugs are purchased online. Many of the donkeys who come into our care have serious health issues such as being blind, deaf, no teeth or riddled with arthritis... we accept them all, we don't turn any away."
The donkeys are given names and, according to Sandy, they are very intelligent, affectionate animals just like puppy dogs.
"Branding donkeys as being stubborn is a fallacy... the problem is unintelligent humans trying to deal with intelligent donkeys," she said. Having originated in semi-arid habitat with bushland and grassland, donkeys have evolving to survive on little food and their digestive system derives considerably more from feed than a horse can.
Running any farm comes with its challenges and the Kokas family has been through severe drought, floods, COVID and even a weed pandemic, where Paddy's lucerne invaded one section of the farmland.
"There is always something to do around the property," said Barry, a former diesel mechanic who double as a jack-of-all-trades.
"In addition to the general maintenance there is the clearing of fallen branches and broken fences after heavy storms and repairing of transport equipment, mowers, whipper snippers and power tools."
During the March floods, the hospital property was hit hard and suffered terrible damage with many of its fences either damaged or washed away in the surging waters.
"It was like having a river flowing through the property," said Sandy.
"Fortunately we were able to keep all the animals safe by moving them to higher ground. We were thankful that we had an action plan prior to the rains coming."
The problem for Sandy and Barry has been maintaining volunteers following the pandemic outbreak.
"Our volunteer numbers vary and we have people come and go. We have volunteers from Sydney and the north coast and we have even had a few travellers visit for the day. Bus groups can be a lifeline but they are being restricted due to COVID."
Sandy said that the sanctuary had previously participated in education and mental health programs and these could return over time.
Meanwhile, the care and rescue work continues unabated, all hours of the day and night ensuring that these often misunderstood animals remain in the best of hands.
The hard working, proud Kokas family are grateful for all the support they receive, with Sandy expressing her sheer joy at being approved for a $500 grant recently.
There is little doubt that Sandy has adopted her parents' love for the animals, continuing the tradition of providing a haven, home and hospital for donkeys, while combining tender hands-on experience with a half-a-century worth of knowledge.
Anyone wishing to donate or volunteer their time to the Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary can contact Sandy at PO Box 102, Clarence Town NSW 2321, phone 0448 083 665 or go to donkeyrescue.org.au. Donations over $2 are tax deductible.
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