Tiptoe, a two-year-old donkey that provides therapeutic services to humans and serves as a seeing-eye guide for blind animals, has become a bit of a local celebrity lately as demand booms for his unique visits to treatment centers.
But he didn't have an easy start to life.
A few days after Tiptoe was born at Save the Brays Donkey Rescue sanctuary in Milaca, Minn., handlers discovered his mother had stomped on his neck and all four feet. Tiptoe suffered serious and permanent injuries, and would spend more than a month in an intensive care unit — the first of several stints.
Later, he nearly lost a foot following a hypothermic episode. The long hospital stays made Tiptoe especially comfortable around humans as they replaced his mother as his nurturers, said the donkey's owner, Erin Larson of Minnetonka.
"He was fed on a bottle in the rescuer's house, and I think he truly identifies as a human," she said.
The unusual upbringing made Tiptoe different from most donkeys. But his affectionate, calm demeanor also made him perfect to help out blind animals.
The sanctuary paired Tiptoe with a donkey that couldn't see and put a bell around his neck so his blind friend could follow. The bell rings as Tiptoe moves about, letting the other donkey know where to go to find food, water and even shelter if it starts raining or snowing.
Larson, who is not with the Save the Brays sanctuary, later adopted Tiptoe. She paired him with a blind horse she owns — Ty — that also needed help. The donkey and horse now live together at a barn in Corcoran.
"Tiptoe is there when things are scary, or if it's windy, and Ty gets disoriented," Larson said. "He can hear that bell, and 'Tippy' will calm him down."
When Tiptoe and Ty were introduced, they became immediate friends, she said, and began giving each other affectionate scratches.
"Everyone just started crying," she said.
The affection Tiptoe showed for people also inspired Larson to bring him to memory care facilities to provide therapy. He often pays visits to people with dementia.
On Thursday, Larson took Tiptoe to the home of a couple with dementia in Deephaven. It was their first visit to a private home.
Harmony Gallegos, who is a caretaker for the couple, said their eyes "lit up" when they saw a donkey in a Christmas elf costume waltz into their carpeted living room to give them hugs and hang out. She said she was shocked that the woman she cares for, Mary, still remembered and gushed about Tiptoe the next day.
"Tiptoe would lean his head into her and wanted nothing but a cheek-to-cheek kind of connection," Gallegos said. "He was loving that she was kissing his nose; he just stayed so calm for it."
The visit also brought back old memories the woman had of raising donkeys and horses, she said.
"The break that it gives the caregivers and the people with their form of dementia is so heartwarming, Gallegos said.
Afterward, the group did some painting together. Larson put a canvas and paint in a Ziploc bag and some grain on top so Tiptoe could press his nose down onto it and make a painting atop the couple's laps.
Where other donkeys prefer staying home, relaxing in their stalls, Larson said she thinks Tiptoe has become passionate about helping blind animals and offering therapy for people.
"We truly think he found his purpose," she said.
Tiptoe especially enjoys spending time with babies and elderly people, Larson said. He seems to match the energy of whoever he's around.
"He doesn't nip, he never kicks; he just gets it," she said.
Larson said a wide range of facilities are now asking that Tiptoe stop by. He is scheduled to visit a children's nursery next week. Nonprofits and shelters have also been asking about visits, Larson said.
Meanwhile, a search is on to find Tiptoe a custom pair of Nike shoes for walking on noncarpeted floors. Recently, Larson started charging for Tiptoe's visits to pay handlers, but she said no one will be turned down. She has also had offers for donations to help cover donkey visits for people who can't afford them.
These days, Tiptoe lives in a stall with a sign that reads, "Tiptoe's Kissing Booth." He gets a lot of attention from people who pass through the barn, Larson said: "Every day, like 10 to 15 women stop and give him smooches on their way through."