They’re cute, they’re stubborn and they’re gaining favor in the animal therapy world. Long regarded as the less-than-glamorous equine, donkeys are increasingly getting credit where it’s due — on care farms.

At Cultivate Care Farms, an outpatient care farm in Bolton, Mass., clients with mental health, addiction and communication disorders come to connect with animals and agriculture as a form of therapy. Care farming is a centuries-old model that originated in the Netherlands, and while it continues to be widely popular Europe, it is gaining momentum in the U.S. About 100 clients, all outpatients, visit Cultivate each week. They can work with horses, sheep and alpacas, but donkeys, in particular, have a way with kids on the autism spectrum.

Just ask 8-year-old Memphis Rose. It was only his fourth visit, but he looked like an old pro as he entered the paddock. His therapist and site director, Megan Moran, asked him how the two of them could grab the attention of two burros named Pumpkin and Jack.

“They like hay,” Memphis said.

“They like hay, so maybe we can motivate them. What do you think?” Moran asked.

“Yeah!” he replied before scooping up a handful of hay off the ground.

Unlike horses, donkeys haven’t been bred to interact with humans for centuries. There’s a lot of attitude in burros. That, Moran said, is what makes them special. They’re small but feral. Approachable, but not easily charmed. Donkeys, it turns out, are a great metaphor for people.

“Their needs are pretty basic and concrete," Moran said. "So when you have someone who has maybe a communication disorder, it's not as hard for the client to decipher what it is that the donkey wants. And so, you can get a lot of cause and effect, which is really helpful, especially when clients are then needing to figure out how to navigate the real world.”

The real world can be tough for a kid with autism. Memphis’ mom, Paula, said before coming to Cultivate, he struggled to get through the long school day.

He would come home from school very anxious and angry, and just, you know, go to his room and scream,” she said. “Because what's happening in school is all those feelings and those anxieties are being repressed because he's trying to look like the other kids, trying to fit in. So when he comes home, all that explodes.”

But since he started hanging out with Pumpkin, Jack and Moran a few weeks ago, his daily meltdowns have tapered down to about one or two a week.

I think it's easier for him to come and talk to Megan because he sees her almost like a friend. And this is a very laid-back place, more than just going to an office and talking to a doctor,” Rose said.

Memphis looks forward to coming to the seven-acre care farm every week. He said it makes him feel calm.

“I feel happy,” He said softly, peering through blue-framed glasses. “The animals are covered in fur, and when you pet them, they feel soft.”

Memphis often takes his action figure of Woody from the "Toy Story" animated movie with him, too, placing it on a donkey’s back as though Woody is also going for a ride. On really cold days, he and Megan will spend more time inside.

“It’s really fun because inside the house there’s an art room and sometimes we draw. I like to draw Woody and cartoons,” he said.

That’s part of the idea behind the care farm approach: taking therapy out of the formal clinical setting.

“When we can be out with the donkeys, it's very clear to Memphis what it is they want and how he can impact their behavior. And I think that can be really powerful for a kid who may be in a school setting where it's unclear to him what his peers want from him, what his teachers want from him,” Moran said. “So it becomes a space that is easier for him to really talk about what he is feeling and what is bothering him.”

Andrew Lapin, founder and executive director of Cultivate, said what typically takes months in an office setting only takes weeks at the farm, adding that many clients with psychological disorders are thriving.

“We have folks who have had pervasive mental illness, things like schizophrenia and psychotic-featured bipolar disorder, who have been inside different institutions and facilities and are now doing things like volunteering in the community. Some folks are getting jobs,” Lapin said.

Although most insurers don’t cover animal therapy, Lapin is hopeful that will change. He remains undaunted, with plans to open a second location in Topsfield, Mass., this spring. The farm has been working closely with the Equine Rescue Network, which saves donkeys from going to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. He said the Topsfield location will have several donkeys.

“I think it's important that we consider donkeys more in treatment," Lapin said. "We have put this huge emphasis on horses as these beautiful and majestic creatures, which they are. But we also forget that humans are all different, and there's a lot of humans that don't identify as beautiful or majestic, and there's a lot of humans that don't feel like that's their story. But with a donkey you catch just about everyone.”