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.