Donkey heaven by Bonny Shah
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August, 2002:
SIDMOUTH, DEVON, U.K.– Fifteen minutes from Exeter, ten
minutes from Sidmouth, a seaside resort town, The Donkey Sanctuary
is approached along winding roads arched with massive trees, with
lush green fields rolling into the hills beyond. The effect is of
entering an enchanted storybook land.
We had seen and heard much about The Donkey Sanctuary during
our own years of looking after donkeys and other animals at the
Ahimsa of Texas sanctuary we founded in Bartonville, Texas, and the
Dharma Donkey Sanctuary we recently started in India, but our first
visit, actually almost a pilgrimage, came in June 2002.
On arrival, we climbed up to the third floor offices of June
Evers, the director of Donkey Sanctuary foreign programs. Evers has
been best friend of founder Elizabeth Svendsen, DVM, since they
met in grade school at age five. They now live together in the “big
house” at the sanctuary, which– showing that The Donkey Sanctuary
is not just for donkeys–has a huge net aviary attached.
Evers oversees projects including satellite sanctuaries,
tropical disease research, investigation of the transport of donkeys
and mules to slaughter in Europe, and the operation of mobile
clinics in several nations to assist donkeys and mules, free of
charge, and advise their keepers about proper care.
“There are an estimated 59 million donkeys and mules in the
world today,” explains The Donkey Sanctuary web site, “and the
majority are to be found in developing countries. Incessant droughts
resulting in increased cattle mortality have contributed to an
increase in donkey usage as draft and pack animals in both rural and
urban areas. Donkeys in many circumstances are a lifeline to
families in everyday tasks such as water and wood fuel collection,
land cultivation, and transportation of produce to market.”
Evers has been almost everywhere that the Donkey Sanctuary
works. India was her favorite country, she said. By far the worst
conditions she has seen, she added, were at some Mexican animal
markets, where sick animals were piled on top of each other to be
hauled to slaughter.
Evers and Svendsen are now in their seventies, yet still
charge into marketplace crowds at times when they see scenes such as
that, screaming and threatening abusive animal dealers as they try
to put the sick and injured animals out of their misery.
Svendsen describes many such incidents in her books, among
them A Passion for Donkeys (1989); Down Among the Donkeys (1995);
The Bumper Book of Donkeys (1996); In Defense of the Donkeys (1997);
For the Love of Donkeys (1998); and The Professional Handbook of the
Mexico and Spain, Svendsen has written, are the two
cruelest nations they have visited, partly because of the prevalence
of blood sports such as bullfighting and hunting, and partly because
of widespread indifference toward any kind of animal suffering.
But Evers and Svendsen do not exempt Britain from criticism.
Evers told me that she wanted to kick all the Brits who raise dairy
cows and meat cattle, who cried on TV about having to kill their
animals during the big hoof-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001, when
they would normally just send those same animals to slaughter.
Evers believes English slaughter- houses are as bad as any,
and suggests that the tears were really only for lost profits from
selling animals for meat.
Evers took us to The Donkey Sanct-uary therapeutic indoor
riding rink, operated by the separately incorporated Elisabeth
Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys. There we watched the
instructors and physically and/or mentally handicapped children
riding and working with donkeys. The children strengthen their
bodies, use of speech, and psychological health all at the same
The therapeutic riding program started in 1975. In 1989 a
parallel program was begun in Birmingham, and a year later another
was started in Leeds. Each program serves about 150 children per
Unfortunately, we did not meet Svendsen, who had broken her
ankle and was housebound.
Started in 1973
According to The Donkey Sanctuary official history,
“Svendsen was born in Yorkshire. Although her love of donkeys
started at a very early age, it was not until she was married, with
a family, and helping her husband to run the Salston Hotel at
Ottery St. Mary in Devon that she was able to own her first donkey.
“Naughty Face joined the family in 1969,” the Donkey
Sanctuary history contines, “quickly followed by a donkey named
Angelina. Svendsen joined the Donkey Breed Society and became their
area representative. But visiting the Exeter Market one day, she
saw seven poor little donkeys crammed into a small pen. She tried to
buy the donkey in the worst condition, without success, and from
that moment on, decided that instead of breeding donkeys, she would
try and save them.”
Incorporating the Donkey Sanctuary as a charity in 1973,
Svendsen had 38 donkeys under her care by that June, when she
inherited the 204 donkeys previously cared for by the late Miss
Violet Philpin, who had founded the Helping Hand Animal Welfare
League Donkey Sanctuary near Reading in Berkshire.
The charities merged and in 1975 bought Slade House Farm,
the first of eight farms which house the ever-growing donkey family.
Four nearby farms, together with Slade House Farm, comprise more
than 2,000 acres. Three other farms elsewhere in Britain are used to
avoid hauling donkeys great distances, and to keep less gregarious
donkeys. These farms are not open to the public.
With about 1,800 donkeys in care at any one time, the Donkey
Sanctuary has now housed more than 8,500 donkeys altogether.
Visitors are allowed all seven days of the week, free of
charge, but donations are welcomed, and additional income is
generated by a gift shop and cafeteria restaurant.
Rather than getting directly involved in the complexities of
operating a restaurant, The Donkey Sanctuary franchises out the
location, in a renovated donkey barn, featuring exquisite country
decor. Vegetarian menu items are prominent, but the restaurant is
not exclusively vegetarian.
The gift shop was jammed when we were there, on a weekday,
albeit part of the four-day Queen’s Jubilee celebration, marking the
50th anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Svendsen’s story
books for children, posters, postcards, and stuffed toys were
selling like crazy.
We especially enjoyed the sanctuary geriatric unit,
including Snowball, a resident 55-year-old white donkey girl who
loved all the visitors, children and adults, particularly those who
rubbed her chin and ears. She had hardly any teeth left, yet was
fat and fit.
Many of the geriatric donkeys are fitted with special shoes.
Lamanitis is a major problem in elderly donkeys, and many also
require dental surgery to remove bad teeth.
Signs everywhere convey information for both adults and young
visitors. Posters and photographs of donkeys past and present
document their histories.
Visitors are not allowed to feed the donkeys, but petting
them is encouraged. We entered all of the enclosures, and some
donkeys were loose, following us around.
The pastures and paddocks are surrounded by gorgeous gardens
where three of the most famous donkeys are buried. The rest are
cremated. People donate trees and benches in memory of loved ones,
including beloved animals, and get special plaques honoring the
deceased. Huge boards are everywhere on the barns, listing deceased
The barns themselves are immaculate and sweet-smelling.
Attendants are everywhere, but the atmosphere is quite
relaxed. Visitors are even allowed to bring their dogs, so long as
the dogs are leashed. We saw many dogs with their people. Not one
barked at a donkey, and not one donkey became upset with the dogs.
It seemed hard to believe that someone had not specially trained all
the dogs to behave so well.
If there ever was a donkey paradise, The Donkey Sanctuary is it.
Sincerely flattering The Donkey Sanctuary
Bonny Shah e-mailed “Donkey Heaven,” above, en route to the
S.S. Mandal School and Dharma Donkey Sanctuary that she and her
husband Ratilal sponsor in India.
On June 29 the Shahs planned to host their third annual
health care and education camp for donkeys and their keepers.
“We already have 1,000 donkeys registered by owner and
village,” Bonny Shah e-mailed on June 20. “Again, thanks to the
support of the Brooke Hospital for Animals in the United Kingdom,
the worming medicines, the veterinarians, wound dressings, vitamin
supplements, and anything else deemed necessary including follow-up
treatments will be donated by the Blue Cross of Hyderabad.
“Many of our patients and their owners walk for days to get
here,” Bonny Shah continued, “and camp out, waiting for the vets.
We feed the donkeys and their owners. Our wonderfully generous
nephew-in-law Pakash Madhani, a prominent Bombay architect, is soon
to make his second trip in person to oversee the completion of our
guest house for the vets, and to help us start drawing up plans for
a permanent 24-hour emergency clinic and long-term care facility.”
The Shahs were already rescuing donkeys via their Texas
sanctuary, Ahimsa of Texas, before they ever heard of The Donkey
Sanctuary–but when Bonny Shah did hear about it, her level of
self-confidence and inspiration took a quantum leap.
Globally, The Donkey Sanctuary is known for helping
countless younger, smaller, or simply less fortunate organizations
to redeem overworked, neglected, and abused donkeys from hell,
both by direct aid and by encouragement and example.
“The Donkey Sanctuary currently has projects in Ethiopia,
India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain, and other European countries,” says
the Donkey Sanctuary web site.
ANIMAL PEOPLE has seen small plaques acknowledging Donkey
Sanctuary assistance on the donkey shed at the Kenya SPCA in Nairobi,
and on the premises of several humane societies in India with donkey
But the influence of The Donkey Sanctuary goes much farther
than that. Sandra Pady of Guelph, Ontario, founded The Donkey
Sanctuary of Canada circa 1989 in frank admiration of The Donkey
Sanctuary–which, even though there are now dozens of donkey
sanctuaries operating worldwide, remains instantly recognizable to
donkey people as just The Donkey Sanctuary, not the first but easily
the one inspiring the most emulation.
No site could resemble the Devon countryside less than the
rugged dry mountains surrounding Wild Burro Rescue, east of Death
Valley, California. Wild Burro Rescue cofounder Diana Chontos knows
The Donkey Sanctuary only from correspendence, printed literature,
and a videotape. But Chontos too recently praised The Donkey
Sanctuary as her role model, in a cell telephone call that she had
to drive several miles from the remote site to be able to make.
Ten years after starting to rescue the Death Valley burros
from shooting by the National Park Service, and nearly two years
after moving from Onalaska, Washington, to the much larger
California site, Chontos has in mind developing local versions of
most of the Donkey Sanctuary on-site programs.
There will be differences, of course. The California desert
donkeys run about twice as big as the donkeys of most of the rest of
the world. Some appreciate petting but others are as wild as their
zebra relatives, who are notorious for resisting even rudimentary
domestication. Visitors to Wild Burro Rescue must beware of
rattlesnakes, and at present are likely to stay in a rugged
bunkhouse rather than anything resembling the quaint and comfortable
bed-and-breakfast inns at Sidmouth that The Donkey Sanctuary
recommends to guests.
Chontos is still working on the fencing needed to allow the
donkeys to have the full run of the land, and still finding and
cleaning up refuse left during the decades that the site was a
“canned hunt,” before Wild Burro Rescue bought it and began, as
Chontos puts it, to “Exorcise the ghosts.”
What The Donkey Sanctuary gives her, meanwhile, is an
inspiring example that building a donkey heaven can be done.
Contact The Donkey Sanctuary c/o Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 0NU;
telephone 44-01395-578222; fax 01395 579266;
The Dharma Donkey Sanctuary and Ahimsa of Texas may be
contacted c/o Maharani, 1720 E. Jeter Rd., Bartonville, TX 76226;
The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada welcomes visitors on
Wednesdays and Sundays, May through October, at 6991 Puslinch Conc.
4, R.R. #6, Guelph, Ontario N1H 6J3; telephone 519-836-1697; fax
519-821-0698; <firstname.lastname@example.org>; <www.donkeysanctuary.ca>.
The Wild Burro Rescue & Preservation Project welcomes
visitors by appointment, c/o P.O. Box 10, Olancha, CA 93549;
takes messages at <760-384-8523>; and receives e-mail c/o either
<Burros@kay-net.com> or <email@example.com>.