INTERNATIONAL NEWS - The coronavirus pandemic has led millions of people to embrace meetings via Zoom, but admittedly, those can be as tedious as in-person conferences.
So one animal sanctuary in Canada, in dire need of cash after being forced to close to visitors, found a way to solve both problems.
Meet Buckwheat, a donkey at the Farmhouse Garden Animal Home, who is ready to inject some fun into your humdrum work-from-home office day - for a price.
"Hello. We are crashing your meeting, we are crashing your meeting - this is Buckwheat," says sanctuary volunteer Tim Fors, introducing the gray and white animal on a Zoom call.
In the video application's signature window panes, the call attendees offer some oohs and aahs as they realize what's happening - and then erupt in laughter.
"Buckwheat is crashing people's meetings in order to make some money," Fors tells AFP.
"They donate to the sanctuary when they want her to crash a meeting, so it's mostly a fundraiser so we can feed the cows, especially during COVID."
The Farmhouse Garden Animal home in Uxbridge, about an hour's drive northeast of Toronto, used to rely on visitor donations and paid on-site activities to make ends meet.
But since the pandemic erupted in mid-March, the former cattle ranch can no longer welcome outsiders, putting a serious dent in its finances.
Big money for 10 minutes
"About four years ago, Mike Lanigan, who is the farmer here - he is a third-generation cattle farmer - he had a change of heart and decided not to send his cows to slaughter anymore," Fors explains.
The animal sanctuary was born: it's now home to about 20 cows, chickens, ducks, a horse and Buckwheat, the female donkey born 12 years ago.
With the pandemic threatening the sanctuary's survival, its leaders quickly realized they needed to identify other ways to bring in money.
They themselves were using Zoom calls for work - and thus was born the idea of having animals sit in on people's work calls to lighten the mood.
On the sanctuary's website, interested parties can fill out a form to hire Buckwheat, Melody the horse or Victoria, whom Fors calls the "matriarch of the herd."
A 10-minute Zoom appearance costs CAN $75 (US $55). For double the time, the price shoots up to CAN $125, and $175 for 30 minutes, sanctuary co-founder Edith Barabash told Toronto Life magazine.
"We are always happy when the people on the meeting are surprised," says Fors.
"We started about the end of April, and I think we done about 100 meetings and sometimes we are crashing meetings three or four times a day."
On one call, Fors tells attendees that he hopes they will visit the sanctuary once lockdown measures are lifted.
"Definitely," one of them says.