Typically, donkeys aren't known for being overly gentle or affectionate. They may nip, kick, or act out in other unpleasant ways. But Tracy Blue's donkeys are different. Blue's donkeys - Jane, Joplin, Jimmy and Arnie - are incredibly gentle and loving creatures that have been trained to be trusted therapy animals for the elderly, people with special needs and children.

The idea of a "therapy donkey" might sound a little strange at first. But visit Blue at her 10-acre farm, the home of Donkeys do Duluth, or on one of her therapy trips, and people understand the appeal.

Blue's donkeys are sweet pets who literally come running when she calls. "I love you," she coos to her eldest donkey, Jane, tenderly hugging each animal and covering their soft muzzles in kisses. Blue keeps a chair in her barn, so Jane can back up to her and sit on her lap - as best a donkey can.

"They're docile because of how they were raised," Blue said. "I spend a ton of time with them. They are this way due to training, time and repetition. I've never raised a hand to them, and all I have to do is say something loud and stern and they listen. I expect them to behave a certain way - I expect good manners."

Lifelong love of animals

Blue, a retired pastry chef, and her husband, Dan Ward, who works in downtown Duluth as a graphic designer, moved to rural Duluth from Chicago in 1993. Their home in Solway Township - an old farmhouse - came complete with two barns, a pole building, garage and a garden shed. In other words, the perfect setup for animal lovers.

The couple tore down the old house and built a new, animal-friendly home from the ground up. "There is a hose right outside to hose off the dogs, and pet-friendly flooring. Everything was done with animals in mind," Blue said.

Their home will soon be remodeled to include a donkey-friendly addition and breezeway. There will be an abundance of windows and a drain installed in the floor, so the donkeys - yes, the donkeys - can spend more time indoors.

Blue has always loved animals. She wasn't allowed to have a dog or cat growing up. However, and said, "The day I moved out, I got a dog." Immediately, Blue was hooked, and her menagerie of beloved pets has continued to grow.

She now has a total of 15 pets: three dogs (two are permanent; one is a foster), three barn cats, one indoor cat, one mule, three horses and four donkeys. Ironically, Blue is allergic to grass and hay, but takes a daily allergy pill to manage her symptoms, and soldiers on.

Blue commits deeply when she takes in an animal, and remains devoted to them for the entirety of their lives. Arbus, her quarter horse, is 24 years old. She also has horses who are 19 and 20. Earl Humphrey the cat is 20, and one of her dogs, Tucker, is 14.

Unique personalities

Blue acquired her first donkey, Jane, with the intent of her being a pet. It was only after a friend sent her a link to a website about therapy donkeys that the idea for Donkeys do Duluth was born. Blue also works as a dog obedience trainer, so the idea of training donkeys wasn't too far-fetched.

Jane arrived with a special bonus: she was unknowingly pregnant, and soon gave birth to a baby, whom Blue named Jimmy. A few years later, Blue acquired Joplin, and most recently, Arnie. Blue shared that each donkey has a unique personality.

"Jane is the one in charge, but is very kind-hearted. Jimmy is a rascal. He likes to run around the pond and then fall in and get muddy. And Joplin is very calm and deliberate."

The donkeys are surprisingly easy to care for. They subsist on a diet of hay, summer grass and the occasional carrot as a treat. They don't wear shoes like a horse does, and see the veterinarian about once per year.

Donkeys do Duluth

Before becoming therapy animals, Blue and Ward started the socialization process by bringing the donkeys to Canal Park. As expected, they were a hit from day one, attracting attention wherever they went.

The animals learned to be comfortable around crowds of people, walk across the blue slip bridge, and even climb and descend the steep staircase behind the Fitger's complex. All along, the couple were also working with the donkeys at home, exposing and acclimating them to the sounds of lawn mowers, tractors, dogs barking, and other sounds that may initially be startling to a donkey.

Today, Jane is a certified therapy animal, registered through Pet Partners. As part of the process, Jane had to prove that she wouldn't kick, bite, run away, or knock things over. But that wasn't all. "I also had to pass a test as a handler, and I earned registration papers and a badge," Blue said.

Although the other donkeys aren't certified, they also work as therapy animals. "The others are so gentle that I have enough confidence to bring them all along," Blue said. "But I always tell people that Jane is the only one certified."

Since becoming therapy animals, Blue's donkeys have visited many places: Benedictine Health Center, Pinewood, UDAC, Sunnyside Health Center, McCarthy Manor, Viewcrest, Chris Jensen, Northshore Estates, Heritage Haven, Franciscan, Silver Bay Veterans Home and the Salvation Army. The donkeys have been guests at National Night Out events, and they've also attended Camp True Colors - an LGBTQ Camp, and Camp Heartland - for youth living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, at One Heartland in Willow River. They've been to Key Zone events at elementary schools, and even marched in parades.

During visits, the donkeys love to give and receive affection. They enjoy being petted and scratched, and many people are surprised by how soft they are. The donkeys intuitively understand that they are not allowed to relieve themselves inside a facility, store, or residence, and will wait patiently to be brought outside.

A fulfilling mission

Bringing the donkeys for therapy visits is an incredibly rewarding endeavor. People just light up when the donkeys come for a visit. Blue shared one of her favorite stories:

"We brought the donkeys to one of the senior living homes, and a woman living there had grown up on a farm. She had been pretty non-reactive and non-verbal for a long time, and she just opened up and talked about the donkeys, after months and months of not speaking."

Visiting children is another special highlight. "We also love working with kids," Blue said. "Kids are so much more at ease around the donkeys than adults. And little kids in strollers giggle and laugh when the donkeys nuzzle them."

Blue doesn't charge for her therapy visits, but shared that donations are welcomed. Donations help cover the costs for gasoline to transport the donkeys back and forth.

Plenty of time for fun

The donkeys also accompany Blue and Ward on many fun errands when they're not "on duty," including walking on Duluth's Lakewalk, and visiting places like PetSmart, the Fitger's complex, and Duluth Pack. "Mr. Vesterstein, who owns Fitger's, is very welcoming to us, and Duluth Pack always has cookies for them," Blue said. The donkeys also love visiting Playfront Park, where they get plenty of love from happy, excited children.

It's important to remember that the donkeys are, first and foremost, beloved family pets. So, they join Blue and Ward on many hiking and camping trips, where they can relax and have some fun. "Therapy comes second to my life with them as my 'four-legged kids,'" Blue said.

So, don't be surprised if you happen to see a few friendly donkeys strolling down the Lakewalk or inside the Fitger's complex. You might even see them in the aisles of Fleet Farm or paying a visit to Duluth Pack. You're encouraged to say hello. But please refrain from quips referring to Blue's "nice ass." While she maintains a good sense of humor, she's heard them all before.

Donkeys do Duluth is on a mission to bring happiness and joy all over the Northland. And the Northland certainly loves them back. "Overall, everybody we meet is very kind to us," Blue said. "The donkeys just make people so happy."

More info

For more information, visit Donkeys do Duluth on Facebook. Tracy Blue can be reached directly at mydogwedge@yahoo.com.