Eeyore's not-so-gloomy place

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)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
peopleSir Patrick took a more understated approach to the challenge
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
scienceTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Arts and Entertainment
tvWe have created an infogaphic that looks back over the previous incarnations of the Doctor
Sport
Olivier Giroud celebrates after his late goal saved Arsenal a point at Goodison Park
football Giroud rescues a point for Arsenal after they trailed by two goals
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
i100
News
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was left red faced but, thankfully, unhurt after taking a few too many steps backwards, sending her tumbling off the stage.
people
Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
i100
Extras
indybest

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition