Tracy and Julian Austwick had waited three long years to hear their baby speak. In fact, they had almost given up hope of knowing their daughter’s laugh. However, at one visit to a local donkey sanctuary, the tot shocked everyone with four simple words.
Tracy and Julian come from the city of Birmingham in England. And in 2010, they were no doubt excited by the prospect of welcoming twins into the world that very summer. However, their eagerness soon turned to worry when things didn’t go to plan.
Tracy gave birth to the girls, Amber and Hope, prematurely. Born at just 26 weeks, the babies weighed less than two pounds each. As a result, they were extremely fragile and needed specialist intensive care.
But now that they were in expert hands, Hope’s strength grew every day. However, her sister Amber had trouble breathing unassisted. As a result, surgeons felt it was necessary to perform an emergency tracheostomy.
During the procedure, doctors inserted a pipe into Amber’s throat to enable her to breathe. However, while the operation did save her life, it also had a negative side effect. The tube cut off the flow of air to the tot’s vocal cords, leaving her mute.
And there were more setbacks ahead for little Amber. Doctors diagnosed her with cerebral palsy when she was just two years old. This meant she struggled to build up muscle, affecting her mobility.
“She struggled to sit up and showed no signs of crawling ’til very late on,” Amber’s dad Julian revealed to The Dodo website in April 2017. “A friend mentioned The Donkey Sanctuary to Tracy [Amber’s mother] and told her the donkeys can give therapy to additional-needs children, so we decided to try it.”
The Donkey Sanctuary changes the lives of mules from around the world. Not only does the organization rescue donkeys, it also provides an animal-based assisted therapy program for those with disabilities. However, Amber’s parents could never have predicted the profound effect its work would have on their daughter.
For her sessions, therapists paired Amber with a donkey called Shocks. Poor Shocks had been given a rough start in life. His former owner had abused him and left him for dead. Consequently, he was still coming out of his shell when Amber turned up.
However, Amber and Shocks hit it off right away, despite the fact they were both new to animal therapy. “It was fairly immediate to see they had a bond together. They were both so gentle with each other,” Julian revealed. “Shocks would lower his head to her and would allow her to hold him around his neck. It was scary for us, as parents, as he was so big compared to little Amber, but they really seemed smitten!”
Due to Amber’s cerebral palsy, doctors didn’t know if she would ever be able to walk. However, a procedure soon meant that this was a possibility. So, with Shocks at her side, the little girl pushed herself to become more active. And soon – to her parents’ amazement – she was taking her first steps.
“When I’d first seen Amber in an incubator several hours after she’d been born, she was black and bruised, wrapped in bubble wrap. She didn’t look like a baby at all, she was so tiny,” mom Tracy told the Birmingham Mail in February 2016. “So to see her taking her first steps was a lovely moment.”
But Amber’s recovery didn’t end there. Her parents were naturally keen to see if she had a voice hiding somewhere now that their little girl was strong enough. So her mom carefully covered her tracheostomy while her dad sang her a song.
It was then than the doting parents heard their little girl laugh for the very first time. “We’d never heard her at all,” Tracy said. “We had no idea if her vocal cords were paralyzed. It was such a relief to know she had a voice.”
Amber’s speech therapist was thrilled when Tracy and Julian told them what had happened. Moreover, she decided to fit the toddler with a speaking valve. This, apparently, would enable her to talk for the very first time. Now, all the family needed was a way of getting Amber to speak.
So they took her to see her best friend Shocks. However, words failed to follow. As a result, for a bit of encouragement, Tracy asked Amber if she loved her donkey. And that’s when she put her arms around him and whispered, “I love you, Shocky.”
For her parents, it was a moment they’d never forget. “We were delighted,” Julian told The Dodo. “It was such a proud moment and of course a massive relief to know that she could speak.”
Amber is now five, and – thanks in part to Shocks – as confident as ever. She’s at school and learning how to manage her tracheostomy. “Mentally, she’s really good, she’s really brainy,” Tracy told the Birmingham Mail. “She can control her speaking valve so she can switch it off if she needs more air during PE or to clear her throat.”
However, even though she’s now at school, Amber hasn’t forgotten her pal Shocks. “She gets to go in the arena with him and groom him and cuddle him,” Julian revealed to The Dodo. “They still value their time together and they still love their cuddles.
Meanwhile, Amber and Shocks’ amazing story has been immortalized in print. A 2015 book, titled Amber’s Donkey, reveals how both the animal and the little girl helped each other. While Shocks helped Amber find her voice, she helped him find his way in the world. And because of that, they will surely always be a big part of each other’s lives.