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The Donkey Sanctuary

“I will keep going and going and going until one day we make a change”. Director of European Operations and son of Elisabeth Svendsen who founded the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK, Paul Svendsen spends his time working to protect the rights of donkeys around the world.

By: Cecilia Bogaard

(El Refugio del Burrito)
Registered Charity concerned with the welfare of donkeys and mules
Birth: 2003
Location: outskirts of Fuente de Piedra (45 minutes from Ronda)
Stands out for:protecting mistreated donkeys

Probably the most interesting “boring” guy in the Serranía de Ronda [1], he is a far cry from the image of a animal rights activist who touches on a topic that can at times be heated. His soft-spoken manner hides a character that confronts controversy with knowledge, aggression with collaboration, and obstacles with hard work and strategic brio.

Elisabeth Svendsen was becoming known for rescuing donkeys in the 1960s when she got a phone call from her solicitor; “Are you sitting down? … You’ve been left a legacy of 207 donkeys. If you don’t keep them they will be put to sleep”. Her and her husband sold their hotel and the donkey sanctuary became a registered charity in the UK in 1972. To date, the donkey sanctuary has rescued 12,600 donkeys in England, Ireland and Europe. “I got involved at a very early age. I’ve tried to escape a few times, but there was no way out” (her son laughs).

I caught Paul Svendsen (1957 Stockland, UK) at the Refugio del Burrito (known as the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK) in Ronda [1] on one of his many trips which have taken him across the world setting up projects in countries such as Kenya, India, Mexico, Cypress, and Egypt. “At the moment I am working on the idea of a charity for animals used in factory food because I don’t agree with the way we treat animals we eat”.

Hidden at the end of a dirt track in the outskirts of Fuente de Piedra (about 45 minutes from both Ronda [1] and Malaga), the Refugio lies on a 15-acre plot which has become home to 124 donkeys. It is the first European rescue centre set up by the Donkey Sanctuary. “I chose Fuente de Piedra in 2003 because I wanted to be somewhere near lots of English people to ensure their initial support. Three years ago, I wasn’t sure we would get Spanish backing, but by this point the Spanish have overtaken the English”. Svendsen started this expansion into Europe against the advice of many who argued that, unlike the English, the Spanish and Italians were not animal lovers. “I didn’t agree. I just think they have not had the same exposure to animal welfare. But since 2003, Spain has had excellent legislation, and within ten years EU law relating to animal welfare will come into place”. The donkey sanctuary is now planning to expand within Spain and into Italy.

Legislative changes have made work far easier for animal rights activists, and “el Refugio del Burrito” recently won the first penal case in Spain against the mistreatment of three donkeys, one newborn. All three donkeys died, while the accused, a man from Alicante, has been sentenced to pay a fine of 6 euros a day for thirty days.

Legislation does not as yet exist at a national level but of the seventeen autonomous communities only two (Murcia and Baleares) have failed to implement laws for the protection of animals. However, Iván Salvía, manager at Fuente de Piedra, explained; “the application of these regional laws leaves much to be desired. I suspect that there exists apathy within the administration which impinges on their effectiveness”. While the Junta passed the law 5/2002 for the Protection of Animals in Extremadura which explicitly prohibits the cruel use of animals in public fiestas, each year they authorize the use of a donkey in the festival of Pero Palo in Villanueva de la Vera (Cáceres). During the festival the donkey is led by a drunken crowd around the village falling over several times. Since 1986 the Donkey Sanctuary has been campaigning against this festival, and combating the belief “si no hay sangre no hay maltrato” (if there is no blood, there is no cruelty) by trying to publicise the stress the donkeys endure. Paul explains; “I’ve always found that the way to change things is not to react quickly and shout against one person. It’s a long-term process. We’ve been working on Villanueva for 20 years and every year we improve it a little, and some years it goes back. But I will keep going and going and going until one day we make a change”.

This collaborative approach has been used in another case of donkey mistreatment in Mijas, famous for its donkey-taxis. “We battled with Mijas for several years. Some owners were hitting the animals and we had lots of complaints. At first they saw us as enemies, but now we work together”. The Refugio is now the official provider of vets for almost seventy donkeys in Mijas, and they have drawn up a code of practice with the Ayuntamiento. “Rather than just criticise we say; this is how we can help. We say treat your animals better and we’ll provide free vets and give them a home when you don’t need them any more”.

As recently as February 2007, the small town of Sort in Cataluña became the focus of attention of many animal rights groups when the Gastronomic Society of Xicoia, who aims to recuperate traditional dishes, sacrificed two donkeys (the national symbol of Cataluña) to make sausage and stew for a party of 400 in a celebration of San Blas, ironically known as the patron saint of animals. “I’m a vegan so I don’t eat any animals anyway, but I think it would be hypocritical to say you shouldn’t eat a donkey if you would eat a cow. If you’re going to eat meat, eat meat. My aim is to have people treat animals with dignity when they are alive”. Iván Salvía, manager at Fuente de Piedra, comments that while this is completely legal (they used an authorised matadero), the slogan they used for the event «Si llevas dentro el burro catalán, haz que tu sueño se haga realidad; cómetelo» is “tasteless”, and does little to promote the cause of donkeys. When asked his personal feelings on the subject, he replied; “Indignation”.

Donkeys are facing problems worldwide as their traditional role is slowly replaced by machinery. “We receive more and more complaints about abandoned donkeys with badly neglected hooves or being cruelly treated. There are an estimated 140,000 donkeys in Spain. Our work has only just begun.” The Refugio del Burrito is dedicated to promoting donkey welfare, but unlike groups such as Aszal, Fuives or Ugra, they are not proponents of breeding or recuperating indigenous races. “Some argue that the Andalucian donkey (Asno Andaluz-Cordobes) is in danger of extinction, but I wouldn’t want to preserve a donkey just because. Originally from Africa, donkeys were not designed to live here. The pure Andaluz donkey is actually very frail and cannot carry its body weight. I believe nature produces animals that are able to survive all conditions, while humans breed animals that look nice or perform a particular function to suit our interests”.

As well as taking in donkeys from throughout Europe, the Refugio runs a fostering program throughout Spain, but only in pairs. “Donkeys form lifetime partnerships and if you move a donkey without its partner they can go crazy looking for each other”. Though living in private homes, these foster-donkeys continue to belong to the Refugio who checks up on them every three months. “If everything is not good we bring them back”.

“Suspicion” is the adjective Svendsen uses to describe the reaction they usually get when they start working in a new location. “People don’t trust that we’re doing something for nothing. Ivan has had death threats against him. Me too. It can be quite challenging in those situations”. Their policy is not to accept money from any governments, but to survive from money coming in from small private donations. “All our farms are open so people can come and see exactly what we do. After three years at Fuente de Piedra, they realise that we bring visitors and the mayor is putting in a new access road for us”. “Suspicion” is the correct adjective to describe the reaction of donkey owners in Mijas. One commented from his seat behind Romero, his burro-taxi, “they want to steal the fame of the Mijas donkey-taxi by sticking up their propaganda. They do nothing. They come here and tell me ‘your donkey is fine’, when I knew that already”.