BETHLEHEM — Several years ago, Heidi Latka had a dream to open a donkey rescue and sanctuary — and it recently became a reality with The Donkey's Cross, a nonprofit animal rescue service.
The service is located at Latka’s farm — Shagbark Hollow Farm, and can accommodate six to eight donkeys.
Latka, who has a 9-month-old daughter, Charley, with her husband Marc, works with local rescue agencies, animal control, and pet owners.
“I get calls from people who need assistance with their animals and need to re-home them, and animal control that knows of a case in need,” she said. “They will surrender the animal to The Donkey's Cross and the animal will be evaluated to determine if they are suitable to be adopted out or remain permanent residents in the sanctuary. Each animal is a case-by-case evaluation.”
Latka first thought about opening the sanctuary while on her honeymoon in Aruba in 2017.
“We visited a donkey sanctuary and heard the ‘Legend of the Donkey’s Cross’ — a bible story — from our cab driver. At the sanctuary, the donkeys were corralled and brought to a really large piece of land that was donated to them, to live out the remainder of their life,” Latka said. “It seemed like a fitting name for a donkey sanctuary in a town called Bethlehem.”
Three years ago, the Latkas purchased a 10-acre piece of land close to their Bethlehem home, hoping to start a small farm with the intention of eventually housing donkeys on it.
“It had originally been a farm a long time ago, and we decided that we’d put it back to what it was,” said Latka, who has been rescuing animals for decades. “So, we’ve been working to get the farm back to life.”
The couple started replanting orchards and Christmas trees. They also raised a large flock of chickens who are now providing them with eggs, which they are selling.
Latka has recently helped place animals of local residents who have fallen on hard times due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was able to network some people together so their donkeys didn’t end up at auction,” said Latka, who is a nurse for Hartford Healthcare. Her husband is an arborist.
While Latka said she loves all animals, she has a special affinity for donkeys.
“People tend to lose interest in animals that have a really long commitment. Donkeys live 30 to 40 years if cared for properly,” she said. “You see a lot of them running through the slaughter auctions because people either can’t afford to keep them, or don’t want them anymore, or lose their facility to keep them.”
This spring, in addition to being available for local needs, Latka plans to rescue donkeys at auctions.
“We will be going to auction to pull donkeys that are at risk for being sold to slaughter. That requires us to attend the auction and transport them home. They will be quarantined until they are cleared by a vet to join the other donkeys,” she said. “Ideally, we would like to help donkeys before they are sent to slaughter auctions so the networking with local animal control and the rescue community is very helpful.”
She said she doesn’t want any donkey to get abandoned and become homeless.
“Anybody who leaves us, leaves with a contract that the animal will be returned to us if they’re no longer able to care for the animal,” Latka said.
While her rescue efforts focus on donkeys, the couple also rescues other kinds of animals. They’re currently caring for an abandoned bunny named, Rip, who will remain with them for the rest of his life.
“Rip was named after the character on the Yellowstone series because he survived some hard times,” Latka said.
He had a family for several years but the family was moving and did not intend to take him with them.
“The prior family’s mailman intervened and took him home, knowing they were not keeping him as their pet,” she said. “He reached out to an animal control officer friend who connected the postman to us. We immediately accepted Rip into rescue and started his rehab.”
Rip wasn’t in the best of health — he had an injured ear and his nails were very long, causing some long term issues with the bones in his feet. However, he’s now doing fine, according to Latka.
The long-term goal of The Donkey’s Cross is to keep donkeys thriving and healthy.
“We are working to get the farm productive, and as the farm turns a profit, those proceeds go toward the sanctuary and the rescue to keep the donkeys maintained,” said Latka, adding that proceeds from the adoptions will go back into the nonprofit.
According to Latka, donkeys “are characters.”
“They have very unique personalities. They are somewhat of a comedian, so lots of people enjoy having them,” she said. “They are companion animals.”
For more information, visit The Donkey’s Cross on Facebook.