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With your heavy load

22 December 2016

Donkeys play a time-honoured, if unsubstantiated, part in the nativity story. Pat Ashworth reports on their plight today

Muhammed Muheisen AP/Press Association Images

Beasts of burden: donkeys are used to transport loads at a brick factory in Pakistan

Beasts of burden: donkeys are used to transport loads at a brick factory in Pakistan

Your king comes unto you, gentle and riding upon a donkey Matt 21.5


I CHERISH a book that I was given as a child. Donkey’s Glory, by Nan Goodall, was published in 1944, and became a classic, telling as it does the life of Christ through the eyes of three donkeys: Trottemenu, present at Jesus’s birth; N’Imah, her daughter; and Laban, N’imah’s son.

Trottemenu and Machellant, the ox, peer through a hole in the stable boards to see the child in the manger. “Trottemenu took a last look, then she gently went down on her knobbly knees. Machellant looked at her rather shyly for the moment, then he, too, went down onto the great round pads that were his knee-caps, and so they knelt quietly side by side, their heads bent down.”

Laban, whose knees trembled when he carried Christ on the journey to Jerusalem, wept at the crucifixion: “He stood against the wall, his head hanging down, and the great, heavy tears rolled down his face, making deep furrows in his furry cheeks.” But he went on to witness the resurrected Christ: “Because you have been so faithful to Me, you shall be known from now onwards, for ever and ever, as Laban the Kingmaker,” Jesus tells him, in a voice which “spoke so softly that he wondered if it was only inside his own head”.

The cover illustration depicts the three donkeys against the back­ground of a black night and a starry sky. There is kindliness and wisdom in the slightly lowered heads, the soft eyes, the patient mouth, the reassuringly stocky stance. The foal lying on the earth is already showing the high forehead that gives the animal its insight and thought­fulness. The child’s heart fills with love for them.


SOME words of Francis Jammes, a 19th-century French poet and Catholic convert, preface the story:

Oh God. . .
Let me appear before You with these beasts
Whom I so love because they bow their heads
Sweetly, and haltingly join their little feet
So gently that it makes you pity them.


I only recently came across, in translation, the poem from which they are taken: “Prayer To Go To Paradise With The Asses”, in which Jammes asks God to send for him “upon some festal day of dusty roads”, and declares that to his “dear friends, the asses”, he will say,


I am Francis Jammes going to Paradise,
For there is no hell where the
Lord God dwells. . .


He wants to be followed by the “million ears” of the asses, whose hard lives as beasts of burden he depicts with angry passion: those who carried panniers; those who “dragged the cars of acrobats”; limping she-asses, and those with oozing wounds. He implores God to let angels lead them to heavenly waters that will mirror their humble poverty.


THE urge to protect the donkey remains strong, and, with their increased use as a beast of burden in many poor parts of the world, they need their advocates and protectors as never before. A donkey’s average lifespan in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico, and India is only nine years, compared with almost 25 years in Britain.

Its most famous champion was Elizabeth Svendsen, who founded the Donkey Sanctuary charity in 1973. She kept her first donkey as a pet: in later years, happening on the plight of seven donkeys tightly penned and crawling with lice at a local market in Exeter, she began to take the animals in. To the initial 38 she rescued were added a further 204, bequeathed to her in the will of Violet Philpin, an elderly lady who had run a small sanctuary in Reading.

Dr Svendsen always insisted: “Donkeys are not stubborn, they are simply intelligent. You can tell a horse what to do, and force it to obey. You have to negotiate with a donkey.” She loved them for their “soft warm muzzles and beautiful trusting eyes”, and believed that they looked at her “as if perhaps they knew what was going to happen in the future”.


WITHOUT welfare intervention, that future is pretty bleak for many. There are an estimated 42 million donkeys across the world: 13 million of them are in Africa, of which 75 per cent are in the sub-Saharan region, including Ethiopia. They are beasts of burden, staggering under loads that can be five times their own body weight. They suffer from being used at speed on rough roads; they are poorly fed and housed, with little attention paid to hygiene; they are deprived of health care, and subject to all kinds of inhumane practices.

Karen Reed, the head of animal welfare for the Brooke, an inter­national animal-welfare organ­isation dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys, and mules in some of the world’s poorest communities, says: “Donkeys can be seen as very low status. . . So it can be difficult to get to the people who can make a difference in their lives. For ex­­ample, owners of brick kilns, where donkeys bear incredible burdens, are offsite, and do not see the animals’ condition day in, day out. What you have is a lot of unnoticed animals.”

The Brooke points out that brick-kiln donkeys endure some of the harshest conditions of all. The heat is extreme; the air is dry and dusty; the loads are crippling. Makeshift harness materials rub and flay, resulting in open wounds and sores that go untreated on shoulders and limbs. But 100 million animals are the backbone of their communities, and those communities’ best means of making a living, Ms Reed says. “Without healthy working horses, donkeys, and mules, they wouldn’t be able to put food on the table, send the children to school, or build better futures for themselves and their families.”

Donkeys represent a vital stepping-stone out of poverty, the charity says. It points out that most agricultural products bought in Africa are transported at least once on the backs of donkeys and horses on their way to the consumer. And there is a new menace: widespread reports from African countries tell of donkeys being stolen, horrifically mistreated, and cruelly slaughtered for their hides, to meet increased demands from Chinese medicine.


NO ABUSED or homeless donkey is turned away from the Donkey Sanctuary, which has rescued hundreds of thousands of neglected, mistreated, and overworked beasts of burden in Britain and around the world. Its reach now extends into 35 countries. Some arrive with mut­ilated ears and festering sores. Some have been abandoned at the end of working lives spent hauling carts and carrying heavy loads.

They are treated at the charity’s own veterinary hospital at the main sanctuary at Sidmouth, a medical facility that has become an inter­national centre of excellence for its research into animal physiology.

The charity’s International Donkey Trust has been working since 1976 to tackle care and welfare problems abroad, and its mobile clinics tour many countries. Its reach extended to 1.6 million donkeys in 2015. And, as at 31 December last year, the Donkey Sanctuary was looking after 4960 donkeys and mules at the charity’s ten farms, while a further 1700 (mainly donkeys) were living with Donkey Guardians in private homes, schools, and other institutions.


”THE donkey has always helped man, in most parts of the world, and still does; and it never asks for anything in exchange. They are such humble little creatures, but they are extremely loving,” were some of the observations of Dr Svendsen, who died in 2011.

Children and adults with addi­tional needs respond in particular to that loving nature, and the charity gives more than 50,000 donkey-assisted therapy sessions a year.

Children who attend the centres in Belfast, Birmingham, Ivybridge, Leeds, Manchester, and Sidmouth come with a wide range of ad­­ditional needs and disabilities, and may have difficulties with physical, social, or behavioural interactions. Feeding, grooming, and bonding with the donkeys helps them to grow in confidence and self-esteem, learn balance and motor skills, and come away with a real sense of achievement. A great deal of fun and laughter is involved, the charity says, describing the donkeys as “beautiful and intelligent”.

They even take donkeys into hospices and local residential homes, including those dealing with dementia care, where they have proved to be a great stimulation for residents. “The emotional and physical benefits of companion-animals are now being established, and there is well-researched ev­idence that shows that spending time with animals can have a calming influence,” the charity says. “The donkeys also love the warmth and affection from vulnerable residents; so the animal-assisted therapy goes both ways.”

The vision of the Donkey Sanctuary is a simple one: “A world where donkeys and mules live free from suffering, and their contribu­tion to humanity is fully valued.”


www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk www.thebrooke.org

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