Donkeys are abused the world over. But in a corner of Devon lives a lady who kicks back on their behalf.
Benjamin was one of my early heroes. He was old and wise, and he watched. Watched as the pigs learnt to stand on two legs, eat at table and exploit the four-legged comrades on Manor Farm. He was slow to ire, but when his best friend, Boxer, the all-too-willing Shire, was promised retirement in clover fields, yet was in fact sent off to the knacker's yard to be turned into glue, Benjamin berated the other animals for not learning to read, as he had done. He tossed his long ears at the sign on the side of the departing lorry. He galloped after it as it rumbled down the lane, trying to warnBoxer of the fate the pigs had decided for him. It was too late.

Poor Benjamin. He saw the writing not just on the side of the lorry, but on the wall a long time before. And, in his cryptic way, he tried to warn his comrades that the pigs were really no better than men: cruel and greedy exploiters. And when the chips were down and his equine friend was in mortal danger, Benjamin ran his little hooves off.

I'm sure you recognise Benjamin, the donkey at the dark heart of George Orwell's political fairy-tale Animal Farm. I knew donkeys well from the days when I was still on four legs. And Benjamin's story reinforced my attachment to these delightful animals as I learnt to read when standing on two. Donkeys are lovely creatures to look at. Those mournful, Buster Keaton faces. Those wonderful ears, so long and so expressive.

Aesthetics aside, donkeys are also exactly like Benjamin was - loyal, long-lived, tolerant, a horse's best friend, and, though stubborn (an under-rated virtue), loving companions. They get on famously with humans, responding to their names when called and following them from field to field. Because of this, they are easy to exploit - and, boy, are they exploited. In much of the Third World donkeys are the principal means of transporting goods, and even people, although they should not be ridden by adults.

I nearly came to blows in Cairo a few years ago over a donkey that had collapsed after a road-hog had crashed into his overloaded cart. As this suffering servant lay on the roadside, motorists hooted in anger (the accident meant they were forced to slow down) while the donkey's master took a whip to the protruding ribs of the dying beast.

Suffering donkeys are not the preserve of dusty African highways. Some of the cruellest owners are to be found in the British Isles. For 25 years, the extraordinary Elisabeth Svendsen has run a donkey sanctuary near Sidmouth on the south Devon coast. From taking Naughty Face, her first battered donkey, into care, Dr Svendsen (a Yorkshire lass, despite the name) now looks after more than 6,000 in Devon, and thousands more overseas, helped by 160 or so full-time staff and a steady flow of funds from people who care about donkeys.

If you ever feel long-faced and droopy-eared, a trip to the sanctuary (entrance free, contributions gratefully received) will have you feeling frisky in minutes. This charity rescues abused animals, gives incalculable pleasure to disabled children and other visitors, and teaches us how to look after the animals in our stewardship. It has also become the world's leading centre for research into donkey health care. Dr Svendsen's exhaustive trips around the poorest parts of the world have led to a significant improvement in the health of working donkeys, without whom millions of rural families would go very hungry. Her honorary doctorate in 1992 was awarded to recognise her research into parasitical infestations and how to treat them in donkeys.

If Benjamin was an early hero, Dr Svendsen is a later heroine. Stubborn, energetic, inspiring, famously accident-prone, good-humoured and a fund of goodwill to people and animals, she is determined that no donkey will be carted to the knacker's yard when there is a field of clover for it in Devon. She sees the world through donkeys' eyes, and talks in equine terms. She "gallops" here, she says, and "trots" there. "Here" and "there" may be Lamu (where she set up the first international outpost of the sanctuary, in 1987) or the infamous Spanish village of Villanueva de la Vera, where each year a small donkey is forced to carry the fattest man around its streets while being tormented by men. At the end of this bizarre procession (a replay of an episode in the village's history), the donkey is sometimes battered to death. Dr Svendsen and her team have been threatened with death, and shot at, by locals for whom donkey-baiting is considered good, drunken sport.

It might also be Ireland, where donkeys are treated with widespread contempt. Svendsen was alerted to the plight of Islander in 1983; he had been left alone for 18 years on a small island off the Irish coast by a local farmer.

Yes, 18 years. Not only do donkeys live a long time (the average for a well-kept donkey is 37, although some live to be 50), but they crave company. When Svendsen brought to Devon a donkey that had been cruelly treated on Blackpool's beaches, it was reunited with two old friends after a seven-year absence. The two Blackpool veterans brayed non-stop as their pal arrived, rolled in the clover together, and then, walking on either side of the new arrival, took him on a tour of his new home.

Not long ago, the sanctuary took in a donkey after a call from the wife of a Welshman who had threatened to shoot it in front of his children because they had lost interest in it and this would be a lesson for them.

The Donkey Sanctuary is a haven of human and equine kindness in a lovely part of the world. Trot there this weekend, and try stroking the donkeys' ears rather than sticking pins in them as we were taught to do, if only in cardboard. You will find yourself in clover and frolic all the way home.

The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon (01395 578222)