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Ex-New York media exec now rescues donkeys in Mendocino County

Ron King not long ago rated a front row seat at the Versace fashion show. He resided in New York City and directed the publication of leading national magazines, among them InStyle, Essence, Southern Living, People en Español and Sunset.

Today, the 51-year-old laces up work boots at new digs near Hopland. The former fashionista speaks to and rubs the heads of docile donkeys and he helps to shovel what it is they bountifully discharge.

King is getting used to the response that often comes when he tells how he transitioned from a Time Inc. senior vice president who had manicures at lunchtime on Mondays to the boss at a new rehabilitation and adoption ranch committed to saving donkeys from being slaughtered for an element of their hide that’s used to make medicine.

King remarked at the 75-acre Oscar’s Place ranch, a hill-ringed rural haven off Highway 175, “It’s funny how many people tell me I’m living their dream.”

Serendipity and the sudden awareness of a global animal welfare issue, and of a means for doing something about it, led King to partner in Oscar’s Place with longtime friend Phil Selway, a prominent Los Angeles pop art dealer and philanthropist.

Created just last fall, the operation east of Hopland takes in donkeys that have been rescued from potentially being sold off at auctions. In the U.S. and elsewhere, such animals often are butchered for their hides, the source of a collagen used to make a traditional Chinese medicine.

A lucrative market for the hides leaves donkeys in large swaths of the world vulnerable to being stolen or rounded up and brutalized as they’re moved to slaughter yards. The global peril exists for the animals because China currently cannot breed enough of the animals to meet the huge demand for “ejiao,” the medicine that is believed by some to be useful for a range of ailments and that’s created with a gelatin derived from donkey hides.

Scientific American magazine reported early in 2020, “In fact, if the current pace continues, more than half of the world’s donkeys would need to be slaughtered in the next five years to feed China’s demand for ejiao.”

Back when King experienced an abrupt and involuntary change in vocation four years ago, and even more recently than that, he knew not the first thing about donkeys.

“I ran seven of the largest magazines in the country,” he said.

Crisp, driven and exacting, King traveled in rarefied circles as the former media corporation Time Inc.’s senior vice president of fashion, multicultural and shelter.

Amid a restructuring in 2017, King was let go and granted a generous payoff.

He tested other interests before having a heart-to-heart with 20-year friend Selway, whose Hamilton-Selway Fine Art of West Hollywood deals in pop art by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. King said to Selway, “Phil, let me organize your life.”

Soon, King was acting as the art dealer’s business manager.

Last year, the position caused King to travel for the first time time to Hopland, the Mendocino County town that straddles Highway 101 between Cloverdale and Ukiah. Selway had bought an abandoned piece of country property with a nice home and a barn, and had arranged for a man to operate a sanctuary there for rescued farm animals. But the fellow who was to run the operation left, and nothing was happening on the property.

King expected to stay on the land just long enough to sell it for Selway. Given that the acreage was intended as a sanctuary for farm animals rescued from abusive or at least unacceptable situations, King made it available short-term to three horses and 12 chickens needing new homes.

Then it happened.

King’s introduction to animal rescue led to his discovery online of an article from late 2019 on the British news site The Guardian. The headline was: “World's donkeys being 'decimated' by demand for Chinese medicine.”

The story quoted from a study by the Donkey Sanctuary, a large animal welfare organization in Devon, England. A key paragraph in the article: “It is estimated that 4.8m donkey hides a year are needed to satisfy demand for a gelatin-based traditional medicine called ejiao, according to a new report from the Donkey Sanctuary. At the current pace, the global donkey population of 44m would be halved over the next five years, the report warns.“

King then found a TikTok video by a Bakersfield woman who does donkey rescue. He felt moved to act.

He made clear he has no interest in demonizing Chinese people for their use of medicine made with a gelatin derived from the hides of donkeys. “We do the same thing with different animals for shampoo,” he said.

But King has taken to heart the accounts of donkeys around the world being horribly abused on their journeys to slaughterhouses, and of the likelihood that the Chinese medicine could be produced plant-based or with alternatives to what is derived from boiled donkey skins.

He proposed to his friend Selway that they make the Hopland ranch a place where donkeys rescued from auctions can be rehabilitated physically and emotionally, then offered for adoption in Mendocino, Sonoma, Lake counties and beyond. Selway agreed.

Late last year, they opened Oscar’s Place, named for a cat Selway long loved and still misses. Fencing and land clearing and other improvements were paid for by the charitable, nonprofit Selway Family Foundation.

Today, director King and his crew of three full-time workers and one part-time care for 28 donkeys. They came to the ranch from donkey rescue operations that took them in from situations of mistreatment or neglect, or from owners who could not or did not care to keep them.

The mission is to restore the donkeys, physically and emotionally. And then to find homes for them with people who will care for them properly.

“Donkeys are in great demand in Northern California,” King said. Some people value them as pets, others as loud-braying guardians of sheep, goats, horses and other animals.

There’s more on the Hopland operation at its website, https://www.oscarsplace.org.

King said after Selway’s foundation paid to start Oscar’s Place, he is keen to operate it with support from animal lovers.

These past months, the former magazine executive has come to learn and value much about donkeys, about how personable and intelligent they are, and how tightly they bond with each other and with humans.

In Hopland, King also a short while back discovered something about himself.

“I felt a sense of serenity that I hadn’t felt for 20 years,” he said.

Today he wants for little, except perhaps some clothes more suitable for his new work.

“Often I’m out here working in a Gucci sweater because that was my world,” King said. “I don’t have Carhartt.”

All in time.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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