How the Sanctuary started . . .

My mother, Joy Payne, and her father, were natural spiritual healers. Mother helped many people for years, giving unselfishly and without any thought of remuneration, although she suffered both arthritis and cancer herself. In 1987, when visiting her in Penzance, Cornwall, England, where she lived, I received healing from her and two other people with whom she worked. Throughout the session I was aware of a fourth pair of hands passing over my body and particularly "holding" my head and asked afterwards to whom they belonged. "Describe them", was the challenge, to which I could only reply that they "were small, reddish brown hands, the size of a child's". After an exchange of glances I was asked to sit down and was told for the first time about Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and how they had found He occasionally joined in the healing sessions. They didn't know why as they were not "special" people, nor were they ardent devotees. It just happened and they had remarked wonderful results.

For those unfamiliar with the name of Sathya Sai Baba (Swami) I should explain that He is considered in many circles to be an avatar of our age. Having myself soul searched for years to the eternal questions of “Who am I?” and “What is the purpose of my being here?” I found His simple philosophy refreshing and acceptable. His mandates are: “There is only one religion - the religion of love” and “There is only one race - the human race”. A slightly harder one to understand is “There is only one God and He is omnipresent”. I was further encouraged by His statement that he “does not want our devotion but our transformation”. Being aware of the human tendency to turn anything alternative into a cult I was somewhat relieved to be released from the need to become a geriatric hippie in order to fit the “Sai image”.

For the next 2 years everywhere I went constantly put me in touch with Swami. I would meet people unexpectedly who had just come back from the ashram in Puttaparthi; a book would fall off a shelf in front of me and would, of course, be about Swami; every house I visited displayed a photo of Swami and so on. At the time my life was confused and frustrated. I yearned inside to do something "more" with what presented itself daily as an empty, shallow, totally unfulfilling existence.

By 'chance' my work linked me with another Swami devotee and brought me to Ireland where I was presented with the unexpected opportunity to purchase the property that has since developed into the Sathya Sai Sanctuary Trust for Nature. When asked if I was interested in buying the property I felt as if someone had just thrown a bucket of ice-cold water over me and just knew that buying the property was the right thing to do. It was indeed a "bolt from the blue". I had had no intention of moving to Ireland, let alone buying a derelict 4 . 2 acre holding. I knew no-one in the area, had no idea how I was going to earn a living and suffered heavy criticism from concerned friends and family who really thought I had finally lost the plot! But deep down inside there was this absolute KNOWING that this was beyond my control and that given patience things would unfold.

It was a very difficult six month period leading up to my actual moving date in May 1990, followed by a further profoundly lonely six months afterwards while Swami cleansed the dross of my expectations. One day, in desperation and frustration I pleaded with the Universe - "For goodness sake, what IS it I am supposed to be doing here? SHOW ME!!!!"

Within seconds I was enveloped in a cloak of absolute peace and heard the words very clearly in my head "Be still. All will be well."

The first donkey, Jacob, was very elderly and was given to me because his owner had died. Though far from an expert on donkeys I was born with a passion for animals and knew enough to understand that they are herd animals and should not be kept alone, so I let people know in the neighbourhood that I would gladly take another donkey as a companion. Tommi and Isaac arrived within days, shortly followed by Lady and her foal Luke. And they kept coming! Within a few weeks numbers increased to 16 and I was negotiating with my neighbour farmer/friend to purchase another 10 acres of rough grazing land.

The most distressing part was both the physical and emotional condition of these donkeys: grossly overgrown hooves some of which had curled back until they were rubbing on the front of the legs when the donkey tried to walk; evidence of long term untreated laminitis, a common and incredibly painful condition of the hooves due to stress and incorrect feeding; skin complaints like rain scald through being left out in all weathers (donkeys have no waterproofing in their coats); lice and mange; untreated hobble injuries; evidence of beating and an overwhelming, pitiful fear of mankind. With a full heart I set about learning all I could about donkeys from the older people in the neighbourhood, one elderly neighbour especially, who's brother had once lived in the house I now occupied and who visited every day to help with whatever jobs he could and share his wealth of knowledge about animals in general. I gleaned information from books, vets, even the donkeys themselves.

Soon local people became curious and asked to visit, sometimes slipping a "few bob" into my pocket to help with the expenses. Others came to help with the work and gave generously of time and skills to renovate sheds, fence fields, plants trees, paint gates, cook food...........and quietly the Sanctuary was born.

At Christmas 1991 three friends were visiting Sai’s ashram in Puttaparthi, near Bangalore in India and invited me to go along . It was with a great deal of trepidation and a good dose of scepticism (still!) that I agreed to go. My father, an ex-farmer himself, came across from England to look after the current donkeys, dogs, cats and ducks for the three weeks we were to be away.

To someone who had travelled little at the time Puttaparthi was an amazing experience even without the mind blowing impact of Swami Himself - sleeping in big sheds on a basic thin mattress with “walls” of our clothes hung on string to mark our private boundaries - to say nothing of Indian toilets!

My meeting with Swami came about simply because I was part of the small group of four that He called during darshan (prayers and blessings), on the afternoon before we were scheduled to leave. I had travelled with Sue Hale and Ian and Marion Thorpe. During the preliminaries for the Christmas festival, Carol, who was training the choir to sing the Christmas carols and hymns, was struck down with influenza and was unable to carry on. As a music teacher Ian stepped into the breach and not only helped to finish our training but conducted the choir in front of 100,000 people on Christmas Day, an amazing achievement and one which Swami recognised by asking Ian to step forward during darshan. When Ian was called, the rest of us followed, as was the custom. Swami talked to everyone in the room, manifested a beautiful silver locket for an Indian woman, which contained a photograph of her newborn son, japalamas and bracelets for several other people and a torc bracelet and a ring for Ian. I was sitting within an arm's length of Swami, well able to see up his loose sleeves, and was certainly amazed to see a solid torc bracelet big enough to fit Ian's generous, big boned, 6ft. 3" frame, manifest in Swami's diminutive hands. When finally He spoke to me He said "And how are the donkeys?". I was thunderstruck and didn't even answer! Then He continued: "How are you". I claimed I was very well thank you to which He replied "Oh no, no no, stomach bad. Sometimes very, very bad. Never mind, I will help you".

At this point I should explain that I had been having undiagnosed problems for a couple of years but medical tests had revealed nothing. Some days the symptoms were so bad I could hardly do the work necessary to look after the donkeys and I had begun to wonder if I was living in a fool's paradise to imagine I could run a rescue centre for them. Swami manifested vibhuti ( a sacred ash) , which I clearly saw emanate from between his fingers, and told me to take it and place some on my tongue and some on the 'third eye". Then He explained that sometimes I was lonely and afraid and very confused. When this happened I was to "think of God" and He would come to me.

Later when we were resting I had the distinct feeling that a hand had entered my stomach on the left hand side and was systematically unravelling my intestines! There was no pain, just a strange flickering "butterflies in the stomach" feeling. My health problems ceased and have never returned.

The following Christmas Ian and Marion, who had been living on site at the Sanctuary for six months and had given generously of their time and skills, returned to Puttaparthi with another group and asked if they could take with them the literature we had put together about the Sanctuary for the purpose of getting registered as a charity. On their return they told me that Swami had accepted the papers and blessed the project, even to giving His permission to use the name Sathya Sai Sanctuary Trust for Nature. (I have often wondered why Nature instead of donkeys, or equines, but no doubt that is yet to unfold!) Once again I was stunned and deeply humbled to be encouraged in such a way to do what I had always yearned to help the animals.

Over the years, though I have remained the "anchor" that heads up the Sanctuary, help has come in so many wonderful ways and from such unlikely sources that every day recalls its own mini-miracle. Volunteers have come and gone, each putting in their own personal energies and leaving legacies from web-sites to donkeys sheds, from painted gates to ragwort free fields, from €2,000 - €2 donations, to staying on site to give my partner and myself a chance for a holiday, to living on site to help with the daily chores for up to a year. The Sanctuary attracts goodwill as manure attracts worms, with the same resulting industry and purified results. Always, goodness is close.

I have always believed that if one's motives are pure, the money will come and this has been endorsed so many times. Although the going has been tough occasionally, we have always been able to pay our bills and now, finally, I have learned to trust a little more. What we need will be provided. What we would like takes a little longer!

People are inclined to thank me personally for the work that has been done but it has always been a community effort: it would not have been possible to achieve all, on my own. Particular thanks go to my reticent, long suffering companion, partner and very special friend, J, who has helped, encouraged and supported my passion for animals, even though he is not strictly an animal person himself. He was truly "heaven sent" to show me the way through the practicalities of what my heart demanded should be done.

One hundred and six donkeys, ponies and horses have spent time at the Sanctuary over the past 15 years, some for a few days only and others for many years. Currently we look after 36 donkeys, mules, ponies and horses with a further 7 donkeys and 3 ponies in foster homes. It is a pin prick in a night sky, but even a pin prick lets in a little light . . .

Sue Paling
April 2006