THIS IS World Animal Week, a time of year that celebrates the birthday of St Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals. My subject this week is a popular animal that's found all over the world: the donkey. What is it about donkeys that makes them so appealing? Is it their big ears? Or the markings around their eyes, almost like reverse eyeliner? Or their cheeky, curious personalities? Does it go back to Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories? Whatever it is, there's no doubt that donkeys have a special place in the public's heart. In times past, donkeys formed an important part of Ireland's national transport network, pulling heavily laden carts in every county, every day of the year.
In recent years, they've have become more like pets, sometimes being used to keep horses company, and on other occasions, being kept simply because people like having them around. Donkeys have become victims of the economic crisis, as people have discovered that they can be expensive to keep.
Not only do they need to be fed, but they also need to have their feet tended to by a farrier, and if they fall ill, the vet needs to be paid. It's become common for donkeys to be abandoned; emaciated animals with overgrown feet have been found wandering around suburban housing estates, and many others have been dumped in other people's fields in rural areas.
Local animal rescue groups do their best for these animals, and there's a dedicated Donkey Sanctuary in Mallow, County Cork. Internationally, donkeys are popular beasts of burden in less developed countries. They're cheaper to buy than motorised vehicles, and their food is less expensive than a tank of petrol. They're often used by people who are struggling to survive themselves, so it's no surprise that many donkeys suffer from neglect and abuse.
Common problems include overgrown hooves, untreated wounds, and pressure sores from poorly fitting harnesses. There are also sad cases of cruelty, with owners slicing off donkeys' ears to identify them, and stories about children deliberately setting them on fire as a bizarre form of "entertainment".
A number of global animal charities are involved in work on the ground to help to improve donkey welfare. Examples include The Brooke (www.thebrooke.org) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (www.wspa.org.uk/workinghorses ): both charities work in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, providing treatment for the animals as well as training for their owners. A few weeks ago, I visited one of the projects supported by WSPA: a donkey and horse sanctuary in Israel. The Pegasus project was established by a local man, Zvika, and he continues to run it, almost single-handed.
He travels around with a horse box in tow, ready to collect any donkey or horse that's found in trouble. He's contacted by local authorities, the police, or just members of the public, and he can be summoned at any time of day or night.
He brings the sick, starving and injured donkeys back to the sanctuary, where they are given food, rest and veterinary care. Some of the animals need long term care, and they never leave his sanctuary, but most of them return to full health, and he then finds them new long term homes. So far he's managed to rehome over two hundred donkeys. When I heard this, one of my first questions was: how on earth do you find a new home for a donkey?
Zvika has found two good answers to this problem. Firstly, commercial fish farms, and secondly, date plantations. In both situations, there's plenty of water around, for the fish to swim in and to irrigate the date palms. The plentiful water supply means that weeds and other vegetation flourish on the land between the fish ponds and amongst the date palm trees. Weed killers cannot be used to control the problem, because of the risk of toxic contamination of the fish or the dates.
Donkeys provide the ideal, organic, answer: they graze happily on the weeds, keeping the level of vegetation down, and feeding themselves at the same time. Zvika doesn't only rescue neglected donkeys; he also provides education for donkey owners, in the form of workshops in areas where donkey transport is common.
He teaches people about the benefits of having well-fitted harnesses, and about the advantages of keeping donkeys well fed and properly cared for. His aim is as much to prevent neglect of donkeys as it is to rescue those in trouble.
I spent some time at Zvika's donkey sanctuary, a place where the peace is occasionally interrupted by a loud "hee-haw" from one of the more vocal donkeys. The longer term donkey residents are in top health, with sleek, shiny coats and a contented air about them. There's a real sense of calm about the place: these animals have been rescued, and they are enjoying life. But the more recent arrivals are distressing to encounter.
Some have swollen, deformed legs, with nasty wounds that have still not fully healed. Others have been mutilated, and have been left with scars that will never go away. The strong positive aspect of this side of the sanctuary is that these animals have been rescued.
Yes, cruelty has taken place, but at least the wrong that has been done has been put to right. The donkeys, always trusting, can now rest assured that the humans around them are genuine friends. During this year's World Animal Week, spare a thought for the donkeys around the world.
Visit Pete's website at www.petethevet.com