Week 40 - Donkey Sanctuary
I have been looking forward to this visit for 6 months. Yes - I love animals. And yes - It has been the butt of many jokes among my colleagues. But the week finally arrived and if I am honest, I hardly slept Sunday night, knowing that I was going to be frolicking around a field all week with these wondrous creatures.
I can see why this week's charity is the envy of the sector. Generating huge public support, a great income and a well-loved brand; they are the shining light of great charities in this country. The Donkey Sanctuary is loved by many and their international reputation and standing precedes them. And I have to say - it's all 100% authentic too.
As you pull up to the farm the signs start appearing. Like a trip to Disneyland the presence of the charity is there before you even drive through the gate.
"WELCOME TO THE DONKEY SANCTUARY" They greet you with hope and excitement. The car park is big and the flag stands proud; you know you've arrived. Believe it or not the sanctuary stretches over 500 acres (not all open to the public) and they house just over 2,000 donkeys, getting an average of 12 new ones in each week. Their founder, Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, made a vow; never to turn a donkey away. A safe haven for any little donkey that has ever been abused, mistreated or has lost its home; the ultimate 'sanctuary' for those who have lost their home.
But stepping out of my car you can hear their unmistakable noise. There is no doubt that you are in the right place to see a donkey.
I was greeted by Suzi, whom I had been talking with for 6-months prior to my visit and was just as excited to see me as I was her. She was to be my lovely guide for the week, lining up an exciting access all areas experience at the sanctuary.
The only way to describe the site is like a little village. With stone cottages, narrow walkways, a restaurant, shop and expanses of fields and out houses; you feel part of a community and a special one at that. There is such a warm and friendly atmosphere on site I can understand how they get in excess of 350,000 visitors a year, free to enter 365 days a year.
My first day was spent on the working donkey farm. 'Slade farm' houses 450 donkeys and they have a team of dedicated and incredibly passionate staff who care for their every need. In all honesty these donkeys live better than any other animal I've ever seen. With fresh bedding every other day, copious amounts of food and expanses of land to roam; they have the loveliest home. But aside from the incredible conditions they are cared for in a way that you would only expect from a charity like this. On site vets, 6 in total, caretakers, specialist staff and volunteers who spend their days talking to and grooming the thousands of donkeys, 2000 in total. And it's not just because they have 24-hour webcams, they do this because they love donkeys!
I got suited up and mucked in - cleaning donkey houses, poop picking and medicine distribution. I stood in the middle of a barn surrounded by what must have been 100 donkeys and thought to myself, people do this for a living! But don't worry - I'm not about to jump ship and cuddle donkeys all day (regardless of how temping that may be). But no matter how much enthusiasm I had surrounded by all the donkeys, it was significantly outweighed by the staff. Each and every single person I met were so incredibly passionate about their jobs it is no wonder the sanctuary has such a great reputation.
My second day was similar to the first, spending time across the rest of the site with the vet and farrier, further seeing the impeccable care and attention the charity give to their furry residents. Irrespective of the amount of donkeys on site, each one gets as much care and attention as the next. I met members of staff who knew all of their 400+ donkeys by name. Yes - knew by looking at them who they were, what they liked and who their friend was.
That's a funny little quirk about donkeys, they have friends; a characteristic among donkeys that is pretty remarkable. They live in herds but within those herds they have friends. Some one, some two and some maybe more; but once those friendships have been made, they are inseparable for life. For instance if a donkey gets unwell and needs to go to the on-site hospital; his friend goes with him. They get severe anxiety if they are away from each other for a prolonged period of time, so to save even more distress, their friend tags along. It's that sole fact alone which I personally feel makes donkey's incredible.
This remarkable nature was most apparent in Teddy and his friend Lucky. Teddy was born blind. Never being able to see a thing around him, yet, he managed to navigate his way around. Then one sunny day he was introduced to Lucky. For some unknown and pretty incredible reason he instantly knew that his new best mate couldn't see. After careful observation the staff at the sanctuary started noticing that Lucky would start leading Teddy around. Walking up to him and allowing Teddy to put his nose against his behind and lead him either out to the field or back home to bed. Now I've heard of Guide Dogs for the Blind but this is a new frontier - Guide Donkey for the Blind! Isn't that remarkable?
It's these little quirks and personalities that truly make donkeys such remarkable animals. But believe it or not, they are unfortunately not held in high-regard. Around the world donkeys are used and abused for their placid and willing nature. Being used for beach rides and resort treks to manual labour and luggage carrying. See the thing is donkeys are incredibly sensitive souls; but because of their evolution are conditioned into not showing their pain; a tactic to warn off predators in the wild. Being native to Africa, they are prime targets for larger predators and as such have developed a mechanism to mask their injuries. Because of this, it's very hard to tell when a donkey is really injured and thus are used and abused the world over.
That's there The Donkey Sanctuary comes in. With international relief work all over the world there are over one million donkeys all over the world within reach of the charity's services and they look after and monitor just over 5,000 donkeys in the UK. So when you give your money to them it doesn't just go to a lovely little farm just outside Exeter; it goes in helping donkeys that are abused in Greece who are made to walk 10 hours a day for tourist rides with little to no rest or water.
I can somewhat understand the 'marmite' attitude towards the charity. Why do so many people donate to donkeys? That's a pretty tough question to answer.
Maybe it's the fact they look quite sad, maybe it's because of the religious connection or maybe it's just because of their endearing nature that people are naturally warmed to them. But whatever it is, people donate. And quite rightly so. Donkeys are in their situation because of us. Because we have neglected them. And as a result they have ended up in despicably poor conditions and in lots of cases nowhere to live.
It has always been the sanctuary's motto to never turn a donkey away and that is something they live and breathe by. We brought them here, so we have a responsibility to look after them; so thank God The Donkey Sanctuary facilitates that.
If you question why so many people donate to the donkey sanctuary then hop in your car and take a day out to their Sidmouth farm. Because I can 100% guarantee after doing that you won't need any convincing. Their soft lovable nature and the impeccable facilities that the charity houses them in, is quite frankly unrivalled. Yes - there are kids with cancer. Yes - there are wounded veterans and yes there are causes out there just as deserving. But donkeys need our care as much as the next thing does. Animal lover or not, once you meet one you'll be sold for life.