Ron King was a New York media executive for 20 years with the lifestyle to show for it. He was successful and loved his career, though he was increasingly aware of the frenetic pace of his days and nights.
He wondered: “Do I really want to be in the rat race for the rest of my life?”
As he mindlessly scrolled on his phone one day, he happened upon a TikTok video, of all things, showing a rescued herd of donkeys that had been bound for slaughter. And pretty quickly, he had a realization: Rats, no. Donkeys, yes.
“I never thought about donkeys in my entire life,” said King, 52, a former senior vice president at Time, who ran some of the country’s largest magazines, including InStyle and Southern Living, and had a front-row seat at the world’s premier fashion shows.
For most of his career, he was fixated on rising through the ranks in his highly competitive profession. In 2017, Time was bought by Meredith and King left the company, becoming interim chief revenue officer at another media group.
But after watching the video, he was intrigued about the high rate of donkey slaughter. He dug into the topic and learned that donkeys are one of the most maligned, mistreated, and misunderstood animals on the planet. In fact, their intelligence is measured in a 2019 study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior titled “Dumb or smart asses?” (Answer: smart.)
“Scientific evidence for intelligence in donkeys could expose their historical unmerited cognitive derogatory status,” the report begins about the species — the male of which is called a jack and the female is a jenny.
King read an article in the Guardian explaining that the global donkey population was being “decimated.” It cited a report from the Donkey Sanctuary, a U.K.-based rescue charity, which predicted that half the global population of donkeys could be wiped out in the span of five years due to the increasing demand for their hides.
King was deeply disturbed.
“Donkeys have been completely cast away from society,” said King, who never married and adopted a child in 2006. “It’s time we give them some respect.”
And so in October 2020, it was decided: “It all clicked. Why not help donkeys?”
Generally, though, the animals are not treated with care and affection. Donkeys are being slaughtered for the sale of their skin, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat anemia, insomnia and reproductive issues.
The popular gelatin-based product is called ejiao, and according to the report, nearly 5 million donkey hides per year are needed to meet the surging demand. China’s donkey population — which is currently 2.68 million — has dwindled by a shocking 76 percent in the past three decades.
Upon further exploration, King learned that the donkey population in the United States was suffering, too. As of March, the U.S. donkey population sat at 14,454, though the number of animals that are killed annually is not known.
“Evidence points to the fact that America’s donkeys are ending up in slaughterhouses in Mexico with their skins taken off them and being shipped to China,” explained Sian Edwards, a campaign manager at the Donkey Sanctuary.
Plus, she added, beyond the cruelty and welfare challenges related to the donkey trade, “we’ve got some really severe livelihood issues here that we are concerned about.”
Some economies, for instance, depend on donkeys to function, including in Ghana, where farmers rely on the animals to haul goods from village to village. The rising demand for the animal hides in China, though, is spurring a spate of donkey thefts in certain remote African regions, which could have disastrous economic repercussions for the countries that rely on them.
King was struck by the dire fate of the world’s donkey population. He has always had a soft spot for animals, he said, but given that he traveled often for work, “I’ve never lived a life conducive to having animals.”
Amid the pandemic and his itch to shake up his professional life, he decided it was time to change that.
King pitched the idea to open a donkey sanctuary to a close friend, Phil Selway, who owns a 75-acre property in Hopland, Calif., which King initially was helping him to sell. It would be the perfect place, King explained to Selway, to create a haven for donkeys.
Selway, a pop art dealer and philanthropist, was on board. When he purchased the property four years ago, he had hoped to convert it into a safe space for rescued animals, but he hadn’t figured out the logistics.
King’s proposal “just sounded so perfect,” said Selway, who agreed to fund the launch of the initiative. “It’s been better than I ever could have imagined.”
They opened Oscar’s Place Adoption Center and Sanctuary — named after one of Selway’s beloved cats — in January 2020, and alongside Selway’s contributions, the organization relies on corporate sponsorships, grants, donations and volunteers to operate.
The nonprofit cares for abandoned donkeys that would otherwise be slaughtered. It finds the animals at a livestock auction in Bowie, Tex. — which is where one of the largest auctions is held, and it’s usually the final stop for most donkeys, given its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. Oscar’s Place then rehabilitates the animals with the goal of ultimately finding them loving, forever homes.
The donkeys typically arrive at the ranch in very rough shape, “because no one has been taking care of them,” King explained. “They’re so mistreated. We nurse them back to health.”
Oscar’s Place rescues the animals alongside another nonprofit organization, All Seated in a Barn, an equine rescue that saves animals about to be shipped across the border for slaughter.
The organization directly rescues the animals at various livestock auctions, then puts them through vet care, until they are well enough to be transported to Oscar’s Place to continue rehabilitating.
All Seated in a Barn also tries to educate the public about the dangers faced by the donkey population. King had seen some of the organization’s poignant social media videos, and decided to reach out.
Tahlia Fischer, the founder and director of the nonprofit, said she is “very grateful to Ron and his team” for sharing the same mission and enabling them to rescue more donkeys.
“We can do more by working together,” she said.
Fischer sent the first three rescued donkeys to Oscar’s Place in December 2020 — Goose, Pickles and Shadow — and within minutes, “I fell madly in love,” said King, who now lives full time on the ranch in Mendocino County.
Since its opening nearly a year ago, Oscar’s Place has cared for 77 donkeys, with 50 more expected to arrive Jan. 11. Twenty-three donkeys have been adopted, by carefully vetted people who live on farms, King said, adding that the donkeys “actually make very good pets,” since they have the emotional intelligence to “form very strong bonds.”
Although donkeys are known for being stubborn, they are also highly caring creatures, with a keen intellect and steadfast devotion to their human caretakers — and each other. Donkeys typically grow to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds, and they mostly eat straw, hay and grass — in moderation. Although donkeys enjoy having an indoor space to take shelter, they are happiest outdoors with room to roam.
While being devoted to donkeys undoubtedly deviates from his past profession, “I’ve never worked harder,” King said. “I underestimated how hard it would be.”
Still, “I am now fully committed to this,” he continued.
Spending every day around donkeys, King said, is the best part of his job: “Animals bring me joy.”
“It’s just incredible how perceptive and intuitive they are,” echoed Selway, who also loves hanging out with the donkeys. “They are really extraordinary. To finally be able to offer them good, fulfilled, happy lives — it doesn’t get any better.”
The sanctuary is not open to the public, though prospective donors, adopters and volunteers are welcome to visit.
“Every single person who comes here says they leave transformed,” King said.
That’s certainly true for him: “I’ve never been happier in my whole life,” he said.