Year of the donkey

They're stubborn, dusty and not exactly cuddly. But Britons hold them in such affection that they give £14m a year to their welfare. How did the beasts of burden become so beloved? By Josh Sims

Once the cuddly-toy kingdom was populated by bears and furry dinosaurs. Now, the donkey is having its day. This summer, visitors to agricultural shows will see them taking part in bonny donkey contests; thousands of holidaymakers will munch candyfloss astride them as they plod along beaches in Blackpool and Spain; still more will be entertained by Donkey, the "annoying talking animal" in
Shrek 2. And, as juice-guzzlers will know, donkeys are currently the star prize of a competition in which Ribena drinkers are being urged to win the real thing.

Once the cuddly-toy kingdom was populated by bears and furry dinosaurs. Now, the donkey is having its day. This summer, visitors to agricultural shows will see them taking part in bonny donkey contests; thousands of holidaymakers will munch candyfloss astride them as they plod along beaches in Blackpool and Spain; still more will be entertained by Donkey, the "annoying talking animal" in Shrek 2. And, as juice-guzzlers will know, donkeys are currently the star prize of a competition in which Ribena drinkers are being urged to win the real thing.

And yet the donkey has always inspired a degree of pity, as though there is something forlorn about the animal. AA Milne realised these traits perfectly in his perma-sad, docile and sometimes stoic Eeyore. Donkeys induce sympathy because they look like second-rate horses.

Which, of course, they are not. Equus asinus came first - a remarkably intelligent creature that can be trained to protect sheep or goats but, in keeping with its reputation for stubbornness, cannot be commanded into a situation it feels to be dangerous, or, for that matter, to gallop. A horse can. Our forelock-free friend also has a digestive system that can break down almost inedible roughage, a camel-like ability to retain water, a cow-like tail and, for some reason, the ability and ardour to vocalise on both the inward and outward breaths, at a volume that can carry two miles - hence the big ears to hear over distances. Horses can't do that.

And, in Britain, it is the donkey that gets the sympathy, in cart-loads. Among animal charities, donations to those involving donkeys are among the greatest: the UK's leading donkey trust, the Donkey Sanctuary, pulls in more than £14m a year in donations, far more than charities such as Age Concern, Mencap or even the Samaritans. An extraordinary figure, given that donkeys rarely figure in our daily lives.

"It's an old-fashioned attraction, but it's never been more popular," says Debbie Clewes, whose family looks after 24 of the 228 beach donkeys working in Blackpool - donkeys which, by Victorian bylaw, cannot stand in groups of more than 10, and must all face the same direction as they do so, and who are currently being groomed for the second annual Best Beach Donkey competition this August. "Donkeys are cute. And they all have their own cheeky personality. We've got one that drinks Coke, one that knocks you off your chair when it's time to go home..."

Donkeys have always had a close relationship with the working world. They walked the 6,400km overland route of the Silk Road, built ancient Egypt's wealth by carrying precious metals from Africa, and worked the narrow pathways of the Romans' north European vineyards, before arriving in the UK, AD43, to work down the mines. Even today, they are the (misnamed) workhorses that power the world's poorer economies. In Ethiopia, for instance, the world's largest pre-industrial society, and where donkeys were first domesticated in 3,000BC, their population has climbed by around 42 per cent in the past 40 years.

These donkeys (which are bred to make more donkeys, or to horses or zebra to make sterile hybrids and zonkeys) enable the country's subsistence population to cultivate land, and to transport the surplus to market. Donkeys are even being considered as a means of delivering aid to Ethiopia's more inaccessible corners.

It is in this role, as the pre-eminent beast of burden, that the donkey captures our sympathies. "A lot of people associate donkeys with their childhood memories, and they do seem to be part of children's storybook culture," says Paul Svendsen, director of the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon.

At 400 acres and with more than 3,200 donkeys over its 10 farms, the sanctuary is the largest in the British Isles. It is dependent on donations in order to continue its work and, although it does not breed, it runs a fostering scheme that has provided homes for some 2,000 of its younger charges during its 30 years of operation.

"I find it sad when people carp about us," says Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, the charity's founder, of the huge donations they receive. "We don't twist arms for money, or telephone people, or go up to them in the street. We do an enormous amount to help donkeys here and abroad, and we use the money well. If people want to give their money to donkeys, that's up to them."

But why donkeys? "They're much more approachable than horses," says Paul. "A donkey is more like a big pet, which is why we have such affection for them and why we are affected when we see them used for work purposes in other countries. Shrek has certainly helped make people think about donkeys again and we've had a far higher response to our campaigns as a result. But that can also be a problem. Twenty years ago, there was a massive vogue for donkeys as pets. You saw them everywhere, even miniature breeds in back gardens. There's a fashion for them again now. But people forget that donkeys live long lives."

Ex-pit donkeys may have boosted many a sanctuary's numbers over past generations, but these days old, sick or injured donkeys come from farms, or are returnees - donkeys once fostered to people no longer able to care for them. Eight years ago, there was a rush of intakes from the peat-farming industry in Ireland, as it switched from donkey power to mechanical methods. But now, the Donkey Sanctuary takes in around 300 creatures a year, and fosters around 100.

But it is not just in this country that donkeys win our sympathy. British travellers readily complain about the ill-treatment of donkeys they see while on holiday abroad, and unregulated donkey taxis in some European countries, notably Spain and Greece, have become a target for animal-welfare agencies. Earlier this year the Svendsens, who have just established the first sanctuary in Spain, with others across Europe to follow, announced plans to use new Spanish laws against animal cruelty to take a Spanish village to court for subjecting a donkey to abuse at an annual festival. The famed festival, in which the village's heaviest man rides a donkey which has been force-fed alcohol, is meant to celebrate the one-time capturing of a rapist in Villanueva de la Vera - he was paraded through the village streets on a donkey before being executed. Elsewhere, a court in Iran last year punished vandals by ordering them to ride around their neighbourhood on donkeys, facing backwards. Apparently they drew a crowd of curious, if slightly baffled, onlookers. The donkeys seemed oblivious to their associations with public humiliation.

But it is not all bad news for the donkey. For the 1,000-plus members (and growing) of the British Donkey Breed Society (BDBS), donkeys now take pride of place at 60 county shows around the country each year, where the creatures are assessed to become Best Novice or Best Gelding. This August will see the crowning of the Supreme Champion Donkey. It is a proud moment.

"People often see horses or ponies, but not donkeys. Nobody breeds them on a commercial scale anymore. They're there, just hiding behind hedges," says Carol Morse, the BDBS's secretary. "So, to come to an event where there are perhaps 70 donkeys makes for quite a spectacle. People are becoming more country-aware and consequently appreciative of donkeys. But, still, they are very often shown in a silly light, or as though they're somehow ridiculous, which is unfair. Donkeys put up with a lot really."

Perhaps the donkey will have the last heehaw. Its reputation as a dependably solid presence in hard times - there was a donkey at the nativity, and two of them carried Christ into Jerusalem to his crucifixion - has made it ideal for more spiritual work. Launched last year in Tasmania, and sometimes seen on the streets of Melbourne, the Donkey Ministry uses what it calls the "charismatic, magnetic presence of the gentle donkey" as an evangelical means of attracting non church-goers.

These beasts spread the gospel by attending outreach events on Christian holy days, and by standing patiently at the altar at special Thanksgiving for the Animals Services, at which people are invited to take their own animals into the church. Donkey rides are given after the service, with each rider given a brochure entitled "I rode a donkey like someone special rode a donkey".

Indeed, donkeys do seem to be busiest in the public arena these days. Businesses such as Stonehill Donkeys, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, are thriving. Its 40 donkeys regularly tour the nation making personal appearances at donkey derbies, children's parties, agricultural shows, shopping centres and nightclubs. They are even hired out to the movies - reviving the trot-on appearances typical of many a classic gold-prospecting western - and, making the most of that handy Son of God connection, often to theatres.

"You know, religious plays," says Stonehills' owner, David Mills, who began his donkey days on the beaches and who recently sold three donkeys to Jeremy Clarkson, a man more used to faster modes of transport. "I'm not sure what the plays are about. To be honest, I just take the donkey, and make sure it gets on that stage and does its job. It's amazing what we're asked to do with our donkeys now. They grow into being general-public friendly. And the general public is always friendly to them. I've worked with donkeys all my life, and I still can't put my finger on why - but donkeys are much-loved and very loving, therapeutic animals."

The Supreme Champion Donkey will be announced at Rodbaston College, near Stafford, 21-22 August. For further details contact the British Donkey Breed Society on 01732 864414. To make a donation to the Donkey Sanctuary see www.thedonkeysanctuary.com

THE FOUR-LEGGED FACTS

* Not all donkeys are small: so-called American mammoth asses are as big as police horses.

* George Washington bred donkeys.

* China has the world's largest donkey population - at 11m.

* The highest price paid for a donkey was £25,000 - for a racing donkey called Minstrel.

* Donkeys form strong bonds with their partners and mourn their death: hence their typically being sold or fostered in pairs.

* Donkeys must watch their diets - they easily get fat.

* A mule is a donkey bred with a female horse (resulting in male "johns" and female "mollies"); a hinny is a donkey bred with a stallion.

* In the UK, donkeys live for 27 years on average, but can live to 60: "donkeys years" in fact.

* Donkeys' coats contain few protective oils and, when wet, which they dislike, take ages to dry.

* It costs £300-£500 a year to keep a donkey. They must have hay and shelter.

* Male donkeys are called jacks, females are called jennies. Donkeys are also known as burros, jennets and jackasses.

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