BENSON — When visiting Forever Home Donkey Rescue & Sanctuary, you’ll likely be greeted by Big Gus. As the sanctuary’s official ambassador, Gus takes his job seriously.

When vehicles approach, he’s at the gate, ready for an ear rub, friendly pat or treat. On any given day, he could be accompanied by Link and Buddy, setting the stage for a friendly gathering of long-eared greeters.

Founded by Tish and John Hiestand in 1997, Forever Home Donkey Rescue is located in Benson on a 30-acre property about 10 miles south of Cascabel. Home to 39 donkeys and a miniature mule, the rescue has become a destination spot for locals and visitors alike.

This family-friendly place is the second in a series of adventures the Benson Visitor Center is featuring.

“Our goal is to find places for families to visit in outdoor settings that kids would enjoy,” said Kathy Lara, who works for the visitor center. “We started the series with a rock climbing activity by Tombstone Adventure Company earlier in March, and chose Forever Home as our next destination.”

On Friday, five adults and four kids visited the rescue where they hobnobbed with the donkeys, learned their stories and chatted with the Hiestands, as well as Suzanne Velazquez, who lives on the property and helps care for the herd.

“I thought the whole experience was so much fun, especially for the kids,” Lara said. “The way Suzanne and the Hiestands demonstrated how to pet the donkeys and talked about how they were used throughout history was really educational. The rescue is great for families. We loved it.”

Forever Home started in 1997 when John Hienstand purchased a donkey named Black Jack as a birthday gift for Tish.

“At the time we had no idea we would be starting a rescue,” said Tish while giving Black Jack a hug. “So, he’s our founding donkey. Because donkeys are herd animals, we wanted to find him a friend.”

Tish and John answered an ad in the paper and brought a donkey named Cisco home to hang out with Black Jack.

“But he had serious health issues, and within seven months after we got him, he had to be euthanized, which meant Black Jack was alone again,” Tish said. “We put an ad in the paper letting people know we were looking for a donkey, and came home with two.”

It didn’t take long for Tish and John to learn that donkeys are often neglected and mistreated. Recognizing the need for a rescue, they founded Forever Home.

“Most of the donkeys we take in are here for the rest of their lives,” Tish said. “Our goal is to give them a soft landing at the end of their lifespan.”

Twenty-two donkeys are buried on the property, said John, who also noted more than 50 donkeys have rehomed since the rescue started more than 20 years ago.

“We give free tours of the rescue and hope to educate the public about donkeys and highlight their individual personalities,” John said. “We want people to see how wonderful these donkeys are.”

Forever Home’s donkeys make parade appearances and participate in pack burro races.

“We have 19 burros headed to Ridgecrest, California, for Run with the Burros on April 10,” Velazquez said.

“This event is organized by the California Breakfast Burritos, which is a public benefit charity. In 2020 and 2021, Breakfast Burritos chose Forever Home as the beneficiary of the funds they raised.”

In 2020, Forever Home received $5,000 through the Breakfast Burritos.

Twenty of Forever Home’s donkeys will be participating in Tombstone’s Schieffelin Days Desert Donkey Dash on April 17, Velaquez said.

Getting the donkeys out in the public where people see how much fun they are is one way to raise awareness about the different personalities, said Tish, who will be running an informational booth at the Schieffelin Days event.

Meanwhile, children of all ages enjoy Forever Home’s donkeys.

Three-year-old Nora Moller is all smiles while tentatively patting Buddy Brat’s face, then laughs as he crinkles his nose for a sneeze.

Juliana Lara, 7, has already informed her mother that she wants a donkey.

“I like how soft they are,” she said. “And they’re so friendly.”

From Black Jack, the donkey who started it all, to Big Gus, Jackson the mini-donkey, and Muzzy the marathon pack burro competitor, visitors are welcome to come meet the Forever Home donkeys.

“This is a great experience for families,” said Stephanie Moller, who was at Forever Home with her two young daughters. “I didn’t even know this place is here. I’m glad the Visitor Center is going to be featuring it.”