Donkeys are a traditional part of Irish rural life
There's something appealing about donkeys. Their long ears, the dark rings around their eyes and their shaggy coats create an image that endears them to us. They fit into the category of "amiable animal", along with hedgehogs, red squirrels and pandas.
As we approach Easter, donkeys have a topical relevance: on Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of an untrained donkey colt, fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy about him being a king and the Messiah that the people had been waiting for.
Ireland has a particularly strong traditional link with donkeys. From the start of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, donkeys played a key role in rural lives, especially in the west of the country. Jim Smyth wrote an academic review of the history of donkeys in Ireland in 2014, titled "The Strange History of the Irish Donkey". He details the main roles played by donkeys in Irish life, including clearing rocky fields, moving turf from bogs, ploughing, transport of people and goods, grinding corn, and finally, for recreation and as family pets.
The advent of motorised transport and tractors meant that donkeys have gradually become less important as working animals, but for much of the twentieth century, parts of Ireland remained in relative poverty. A report of the Department of Agriculture in 1971 - less than fifty years ago - stated that less than 25 per cent of farm homes had piped water, 21 per cent had toilets, 18 per cent had bathrooms, 75 per cent had electricity, 21 per cent had television, 3 per cent had telephones and 26 per cent had motor cars. It's very likely that many of these homes still depended on donkeys for some of the traditional tasks that needed done on farms.
With Ireland joining the EU in 1974, and the subsequent change in agricultural policies and increase in rural investment, donkeys gradually became less important to farmers, and they began to be seen more as pets. Donkeys had featured in images of traditional Ireland, in art work and on post cards, and people began to feel nostalgic about them. There was something charming about having a couple of pet donkeys if you had a spare couple of acres and enough cash to look after them.
More recently, donkeys even began to be seen as status symbols, especially in the years of the Celtic Tiger: the price of a three year old mare tripled between 2005 and 2008 from €500 to up to €1800. Predictably, this could not last: after the economic downturn, donkeys began to be abandoned, and since 2011, over 400 rescued animals have been taken in every year by the Donkey Sanctuary in Mallow, County Cork. If you search online now, you'll find dozens of donkeys being offered to good homes, free of charge. Nobody knows the precise national population of donkeys, with estimates varying from 4000 to 20000. There's now a concern that they are prone to being neglected because of their low value.
As a pet vet, I'm not often called to attend to donkeys. In the past, I have been summoned to help with basic tasks for pet donkeys, including hoof trimming and tooth filing. They aren't always easy animals to work with: they have a stubborn streak and if they don't want you to do something, they won't let you. I remember one particularly tedious episode of hoof trimming: the donkey let us catch him easily enough, but he refused to allow us to go near his feet with the trimming implements. We managed eventually, but only with four people holding him still, and he brayed loudly at us while we carried out the painless, simple work of trimming back the excess hoof from his feet.
A few years ago, I travelled out to Israel to visit a donkey sanctuary: in the land where Jesus rode on a donkey's back, they are still in daily use as beasts of burden. They are often neglected, being forced to do hard physical work in difficult conditions. The donkey sanctuary had a horse box which was in constant use, responding to calls about donkeys in trouble within a hundred mile radius. I saw some sad cases of animals with serious wounds, some of which couldn't be treated, so that euthanasia was needed to relieve their suffering. But I also saw many good outcomes, with animals thriving once they received the basic necessities of good food and appropriate veterinary treatment.
Here in Ireland, it's rare to see donkeys with injuries due to over-work or abuse, but sadly, they still suffer from neglect, with issues such as underfeeding, poor housing and lack of veterinary care. Overgrown hooves are a particular problem.
The Donkey Sanctuary in Mallow, founded in 1972, cares for over 1,800 donkeys. Over four hundred of them are kept in private homes around the country as part of a rehoming scheme and the remainder are based in their four farms in County Cork.
One of these, Knockardbane Farm, is home to 134 donkeys. This farm is open, free of charge, to the public 365 days a year from 9am until 5pm, with picnic facilities and a visitor centre. If you are looking for something different to do over Easter, why not join the 50000 people every year who visit the Donkey Sanctuary?