Silly asses! Why Britain loves the donkey

In finest Fleet Street tradition, 'The Sun' raced to the rescue of this poor animal. But, as David Randall discovers, a donkey is not just for the silly season ...

Here's a quiz question to start off the silly season: what do Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Karl Marx and Rupert Murdoch have in common? Apart, of course, from the wacky lifestyle and their influence on generations of literature lovers.

The answer is that they were all donkey lovers, the last, admittedly, by proxy, but the first three by choice, enthusiasm and lengthy devotion. And what inspires this apparently nonsensical query? The case last week of Anapka the flying Russian donkey, the harbinger of our annual month of absurd news stories, and thus the inspiration for rediscovering Britain's love affair with this allegedly stubborn animal.

Of Dickens, Austen, Marx and Murdoch more anon, but, to open the story of "Equus africanus asinus and All That", we turn to the adventures of Anapka. She was leading, as far as we can tell, a blameless life far from the prying lenses of the international media when a man in her village of Golubitskaya, near the Black Sea, approached her owner, known to us only as "Vasily". The man would like, he explained, to offer rides to children on a nearby beach this summer, and Anapka seemed just the appealing conveyance. This being Russia, a certain amount of hard-arsed haggling took place, and a deal was eventually struck for Anapka to be rented for the season at a rate of 20,000 roubles (about £430). Vasily gave her a comforting pat, one assumes, off Anapka trotted, and all seemed well.

Imagine, therefore, Vasily's surprise when the next time he saw Anapka she was hanging beneath a large multicoloured parachute some 50 metres above the Sea of Azov. She and chute were being towed through the air by a powerboat in order to publicise the attractions of this enterprising resort, and this distressing scene – complete with Anapka's brays of protest – was captured on film, shown first on local television and then across the globe. She looked a very reluctant Dumbo.

Anapka was not the only one who was unhappy. Objections rang out around the world, and there were demands that Something Must Be Done. The Russian authorities announced an investigation, and Karin Nikischer, a Canadian specialist in helping animals over traumas, told The Moscow News: "I have been sending distant healing to the donkey, to get her emotional system back into balance." But Anapka's state of mind was the least of the concerns. She had, as far as a waiting world could tell, disappeared. Enter, then, The Sun, a newspaper with a Big Heart and an Even Bigger Budget, and something of an impressive CV in donkey-welfare matters. Wheels were set in motion, Russian palms greased and, with the kind of witty fanfare for which it is renowned, the paper was able to declare on Friday's front page: "We've Saved Her Ass."

Inside this souvenir edition were further details, under the rubric: "Red Donkey Will Never Have to Parasail Again". Some were disturbing – Vasily, interviewed under caution by the paper, said that he had rented other animals to the mystery miscreant: "I also let him borrow a camel and a horse ...", thus raising the prospect of even more spectacular seaside stunts. Some merely filled in Anapka's vital statistics, such as her age – 17. But others were reassuring, such as the report by the vet, hired by The Sun to examine Anapka: "There was no obvious physical damage caused by the flight. As for psychological damage, it is harder to tell. As far as I could see, she behaved in her usual way. We did not identify immediate signs of distress." This diagnosis, something of a disappointment to Murdoch's Animal Rescue Unit one imagines, did not stop the paper describing Anapka as "quaking", "trembling" and "dizzy and faint", the Canadian woman's vibes obviously not having yet reached her. Still, the report was a stirring read. All it lacked was a scene where a raincoated figure burst into the grounds of a dacha and barked out: "Her Majesty's Press! Step away from the donkey!"

It is, perhaps, a sign of Fleet Street's decline that The Sun had this mercy dash all to itself. Not so in 1987, when the plight of the legendary Blackie touched the nation, or at least that part of it employed to manufacture entertaining news stunts. At the centre of this tale was a Spanish village called Villanueva whose inhabitants held a Shrovetide fiesta each year at which a donkey was ridden by a fat, and often drunk, man. To these provable facts were added allegations that more and more large men would clamber aboard until the donkey was crushed under the weight of drunken Spanish humanity. The village denied this, but that did not stop a full-scale hue and cry being mounted by Fleet Street to save that year's donkey, an animal called El Negro, rapidly Anglicised to Blackie.

The Sun and Star sent resourceful operatives; much sangria was consumed and peasant costumes donned. Finally, amid the inevitable Race Against Time, The Sun stole a march. "We Save Blackie" boasted their 4 March front page in a story which began: "T he Sun has saved Blackie the donkey from a barbaric ritual death in Spain. Savage peasants planned to crush the helpless animal to death ... but we snatched Blackie to safety."

The donkey (and there is some dispute as to whether it was the right one) may have been safe from the villagers, but not from the Star. They bought Blackie from his keeper for £225, and ran the headline: "Gotcha!" The Sun offered £6,000 for Blackie, was spurned, and, with the Star declaring its intention of transporting the donkey to Britain, Murdoch's men started a campaign to have the animal kept in Spain. Eventually, with the help of an RSPCA enthusiast, Vicki Moore, Blackie was brought to Britain and lived out her remaining years at the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. She died in 1993, and was buried with full honours. (Mrs Moore, the real heroine of the saga, died in 2000, never having recovered from being gored by a bull whose taunting at a Spanish run she was trying to capture on film at the time.)

What is it – with our sanctuaries, rides on the sands, derbies and rescues – with the British and donkeys? Is it their place in our literature, with Winnie the Pooh's Eeyore and Bottom's head being transformed into that of a donkey by Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream? Or is there some deeper affinity between these animals and classic British traits? They have loud brays (which can carry three kilometres), cast-iron stomachs (able to extract sustenance from the unlikeliest material), long memories (remembering places up to 25 years later, apparently), and a certain bloody-minded sense of self-preservation – all attributes that have stood the British in sterling stead down the years.

Especially in wartime. And, in the story of a South Shields-born soldier and his four-legged chum in the First World War, we have the definitive combination of man and donkey in common cause. The man was John Simpson Kirkpatrick, a Merchant Navy deserter who jumped ship in New South Wales and subsequently went to war as a stretcher bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. He landed at Gallipoli in April 1915, soon found a donkey he christened Duffy, and they both began carrying wounded soldiers from the front line to the beach. The fire was so incessant that it was only a matter of time before they were hit. After less than four weeks, Simpson was cut down by enemy guns. Duffy survived, was rescued by the Anzacs, but, on a stop at a Greek island, wisely decided to do a runner rather than be feted as a hero back in Oz.

The British and donkeys go back a long way. Pack animals for centuries both above and below ground, they ferried everything from coal, wine, firewood and pasties for Cornish tin men, to famous novelists. Jane Austen was given a donkey carriage by her brother and used it to nip into Alton for a morning's shopping. Later, donkeys were recruited by the leisure industry, giving rides at the seaside and pleasure grounds. By 1836, there were around 100 being plied for passing trade on Hampstead Heath, and among the giggling joyriders were Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, the latter an especially inept jockey, apparently.

Seaside donkeys have faded from many scenes, but some 850 of our long-eared friends still give rides along British sands, many of them enjoying better working conditions than other seasonal workers. A donkey code stipulates a 48-hour week, an hour off for lunch, and a ban on any passenger weighing more than eight stone. And no skydiving. How very different from their working life in Mother Russia.

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