An animal lover, a beloved donkey, and the end-of-life visit that would bring them together once again
By Abigail Thorpe
Karen Babitt was a Worley, Idaho, resident for life. Born in the small town just south of Coeur d’Alene in 1944, she was always ready to help anyone—or any animal—at the drop of a hat, says her sister Kathy. She was married in Worley and later raised her son there, served as the postmaster for Worley for over 40 years and on the Worley City Council for many years—a beloved face known to the community who is remembered fondly for her care and love of animals.
Locals often called her about animals in need of rescuing or a home. Throughout her life she cared for many animals—llamas, alpacas, dogs, cats and birds. But one of her most beloved pets came to be a miniature donkey named Geppetto, which Karen raised for more than 30 years. The two shared a close bond throughout their lives. “The donkey has always been spoiled rotten, loves attention and has been in many local parades,” remembers Kathy.
Karen was later diagnosed with breast cancer that ultimately spread to her bones. After several surgeries, she was admitted to Hospice of North Idaho’s Schneidmiller House in Coeur d’Alene in January of 2020.
It was not the end of Karen and Geppetto’s story, however. After her admittance to the hospice house, Karen received a joyful and unexpected visit. Her close friend Cheri had a plan to reunite the pair, and the Schneidmiller House was all in for the surprise. The hospice house welcomes well-mannered pets to visit their owners at the end of life and has seen cats, dogs and even a goat. They would soon add donkey to that list.
Geppetto arrived at the Schneidmiller House on January 16, prepped for the visit with a makeshift diaper. He walked down the hall to Karen’s room, where he and his beloved owner were reunited for one final time. Family and friends gathered while Geppetto laid on the floor by Karen’s bedside.
“The look they exchanged was a deep understanding of each other,” says Megan Ryan, Hospice of North Idaho outreach coordinator. “They shared a connection. I think Geppetto knew that his human needed him, and they both wanted to say goodbye.”
Near the end of the visit, Geppetto got up to rest his head on Karen’s knees, as if he knew it was their final visit together. It was a heartwarming and peaceful moment, and one the hospice house has come to remember fondly.
“Many times our closest family member is of the four-legged kind,” says Kim Ransier, executive director of Hospice of North Idaho. “Our relationships with our animals have a place deep within hearts. At Hospice of North Idaho, we are dedicated to help every patient be surrounded by those that mean the most to them—and sometimes it is a pet they have had for over 30 years. We honor those relationships and include them in our plan of care for each patient, even if it means bringing a donkey into The Schneidmiller House.”
The Schneidmiller Hospice House specializes in meeting patients where they are, comforting them on their journey and providing a peaceful and encouraging place for everyone to make the choices that are most important to them. It is the only hospice in-patient care unit in the state, and Hospice of North Idaho has received many honors for its quality of care since its opening in 1981. The nonprofit offers the Coeur d’Alene community palliative care, hospice care and grief support.
“We encouraged this sweet donkey to visit so her person could be loved up by her best friend,” says Cindy Reed, director of the Schneidmiller House. Geppetto’s visit garnered a lot of attention and buzz with staff and community members. The initial post reached over 26,000 people, and garnered over 600 reactions and 230 shares. Kathy was thrilled to see the visit go viral.
“Later when I visited Kathy, she was so excited and shared that she and her donkey pictures went viral and that friends were calling her family to let them know they had been viewed many times in faraway states: ‘We are so famous now!’” remembers Reed. “She was thrilled. This brought additional joy to those precious moments.”
Less than a month after Geppetto’s visit, Karen passed away on February 7, 2020. She left behind many memories of love and care for so many, among them the heart she had for animals like Geppetto. It was fitting that he could be by her side so close to the end of her life, and a memory none who witnessed it will forget.
After her passing, Geppetto was cared for by a close family friend, just as Karen would have wanted. After a long and happy life, and as if knowing the significance of the day, he passed away on May 7—Karen’s birthday.
Karen’s other animals are still well taken care of by the family friend, a reminder and continuation of the love and passion for people, animals and the community that marked Karen’s life.