Area journalist DeLuca produced documentary
A documentary featuring a Gasport animal rescue farm, produced by former Niagara Gazette journalist Michele DeLuca, will make its television debut at 5:30 p.m. this Saturday on WNED-TV, the local PBS affiliate.
The documentary, “Jackass Love,” showcases the effort of volunteers at Whispering River Animal Rescue to purchase donkeys from “kill farms” where the animals are sent after being purchased at equine auction. At the kill farms, they are held under miserable and unregulated conditions before being inhumanely shipped to Mexico for butchering, their meat sent to countries that still consume donkey meat.
The local rescue facility was opened in 2020 and is staffed by 20 or 30 volunteers. It raises money to purchase the donkeys, quarantine them, and then transport the creatures to Gasport, where they are cared for and placed in loving homes when possible.
The documentary examines how the volunteers’ efforts to heal the abused, discarded and broken donkeys often bring healing to their own lives, particularly if they are facing issues of their own.
“The people at Whispering River are so amazing,” DeLuca said. That and the beauty of the animals and the loving feeling between the animals and their caretakers inspired her to do the documentary. “This place brings peace and healing to those who take the time to give of themselves.”
DeLuca’s interest in Whispering River Animal Rescue began as a personal quest to help a family member who has since passed away.
“My older brother has had a very challenging life … and I wanted to find something for him to experience joy. He loved animals, and I had read about Whispering River Animal Rescue in the Niagara Gazette,” she said. “The article said, ‘We are looking for volunteers who are battling depression, anxiety and addiction to just come and love the animals.’ I was so touched by that, and it was exactly what I knew he could do.”
She said that when she drove her brother, Jerry, out to the animal rescue facility one day, “they welcomed us like family. … To have them make him feel so at home and so respected and, literally, loved, just touched me to my soul. And the day after, he called me and said, ‘That was the best day of my life.’ ”
Last February, DeLuca had finished shooting the film and had just begun the editing process when her brother died, so he never got to see the completed documentary.
“But he found such happiness at that place,” she said.
DeLuca finished editing the documentary in mid-summer of 2022 and started submitting it to film festivals. She won a half-dozen awards at various festivals and held a local premiere at the Screening Room at Boulevard Mall last summer as a fundraiser for Whispering River. Then she explored ways to find a larger audience.
“I literally reached out to PBS on a longshot,” she said. After an exchange of emails, the program manager at WNED-TV said the station would be happy to air it.
“That just blew my mind,” DeLuca said. “It was one of my greatest professional delights so far. The process of shooting video, for me, is joyful.”
DeLuca shot the entire documentary on her iPhone, edited it on iMovie, and is the narrator.
“The idea that my little documentary is going to air on the same station that features nationally, internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is just a dream come true,” DeLuca said.
She plans to contact program directors at other PBS stations across the nation in hopes of their airing her film and addressing the need for humane treatment of donkeys, mules and horses.
“This is a national issue,” DeLuca said. “There is legislation in Congress waiting to be passed, which would attend to these issues so these animals can’t be transported out of country to be butchered.
“These animals love us, and for us to betray them like that is just heartbreaking.”
The staff at Whispering River was very pleased with the documentary when they saw it, DeLuca said.
“They laughed and they cried, which is exactly what you hope for when you are dealing with a topic that is so emotional. I couldn’t have asked for a better response. They have been so supportive,” she said.
There aren’t just donkeys at Whispering River, DeLuca said. Other animals that are rescues somehow land at the doorstep, including goats, birds, chickens, mules and, occasionally, horses.
But “Their hearts are with donkeys,” DeLuca said of the Gasport rescue facility.
Whispering River founder Jacqueline Serrano had a beloved donkey, and had long been involved in animal rescue work.
“This rescue was a dream of hers and her brother’s,” DeLuca said. Her brother, John Serrano, passed away right before the rescue opened. “She was surrounded by an extraordinary crew of volunteers. I feel that just having spent time there that love is the thing that you feel – love from the humans to the animals and love back from these broken, battered donkeys.
“Because it is unregulated, these donkeys, when they are rescued, they arrive and they are terrified … they have been described as being like Holocaust survivors. Some immediately begin to return love to the volunteers, and some take months to acclimate to being treated kindly.
“The kicker for me is I didn’t even know that I loved donkeys until I met one up close and personal – and they are so dear and they’re so kind – ‘kind’ is a strange word to use for a donkey, but they’re so affectionate. They can be funny and silly – they’re just the most delightful animals, and I never knew that.”
DeLuca had been looking for a documentary project after her background in cable television as a producer, photographer and video editor. She continued to use those skills when she returned to print journalism at the Gazette about 15 years ago.
The next project she is contemplating is a feature film based on a novel she wrote.
“It’s a mystical love story,” DeLuca said.
She would do the filming at Lily Dale, a center for spiritualism and mediumship in Chautauqua County, where a lot of the action in her novel takes place. DeLuca said it is based on her research into near-death experiences.
For more information about Whispering River Animal Rescue, visit on Facebook or www.whisperingriverrescue.com. The documentary will be available for viewing on demand at WNED PBS Buffalo/Toronto after airing at www.wned.org.
Karen Carr Keefe contributed to this report.