Hardworking and headstrong, considered the uncool cousin of the burly horse and mule, one might say it is fitting that the donkey has somewhat become the mascot of Greece.
Think of it. Rarely does a tourist not snap a photo of donkeys traipsing up the craggy staircases of Santorini and work in the olive groves is infinitely more difficult without the trusty ass there to transport the bountiful harvest. In some cases, the animals might even cater to the whims of Greek children of the diaspora who, while on holiday, demand pony-style rides around the village (give me a break – I was five).
But what happens to these donkeys when they are sick, old, or unwanted? What is a family to do when the crisis has left them struggling to put food on the table, let alone in a trough? Or what about an aging farmer, with no more strength to manage in the fields?
Enter Corfu Donkey Rescue, a small charity trying to make things better for Greek donkeys. On a small property in Doukades, Corfu, donkeys are cared for, nursed back to health and provided with an oasis in which to live out their last days. A retirement village for donkeys, if you will.
Corfu Donkey Rescue was an initiative started by Judy Quinn, a British ex-pat and now-resident of Corfu. Disillusioned with life in Britain, Judy arrived in Corfu in 2003, fueled by sweet memories of her travels there in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Initially, she aimed to help with the problem of abandoned dogs in Greece – but it quickly became clear that while dogs were the focus of several animal rights organizations, donkeys, and the growing problem of their abandonment and mistreatment, were not. So she took matters into her own hands, rented some land to care for two needy donkeys and before she knew it, she had many more; in 2006 she registered Corfu Donkey Rescue as an official Greek Charity.
Read our interview with Judy to learn more about saving donkeys from slaughter, the effect of the Greek rumour mill and the future of Corfu Donkey Rescue (CDR).
GOTH: Where do CDR donkeys arrive from, all over Greece, or just Corfu?
Judy Quinn: We only take in donkeys from Corfu, this gives us more than enough work! Owners/families ring us and ask us to take their old donkeys, and dealers and gypsies bring us donkeys that they cannot sell as they are old, injured or sick.
GOTH: Are there different breeds of donkeys? What are the most common in Greece?
JQ: I was told that the first donkeys arrived in Corfu in the mid-1800s, brought over from Malta by the British to help build St. James’s Palace. Since then, dealers have brought them in from the mainland, Albania, Cyprus, the old Eastern Bloc countries to name but a few. So I would say that the donkeys in Corfu are entirely mixed race. They are generally very small animals compared to Spanish and Cretan donkeys. Today the dealers are bringing in young healthy donkeys from Bulgaria.
GOTH: Where do the CDR volunteers come from, and what do they assist with?
JQ: Volunteers come from Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. We also take many students from the UK and Holland. In the last 2 years we have received veterinary students from UK universities. It is an educational experience for 1st and 2nd year students to learn about the care and basic veterinary side of equines. We were also really pleased to receive 2 Greek veterinary students from Karditsa this year. All volunteers assist with the general care of the donkeys, feeding, cleaning, medicines and basic first aid. Students are taught more advanced veterinary care.
GOTH: What’s CDR’s biggest expense?
JQ: Food for the donkeys. This costs us an average of 500 euros a week – there are 60 donkeys and about 15 dogs, 25 cats.
GOTH: What has been the response of the island to CDR?
JQ: I was met with great suspicion initially. Rumours abounded that the government gave 500 – 3000 euros a year to anyone who kept a donkey. The rumours still circulate but there is no truth in them (our lawyer checked it out!) So this is why the Greeks thought we kept donkeys – for this non-existent money. The concept of charitable work for animals was hard for them to believe. Even now, in our local village, the elder generation thinks I do it for this government money. However, over the years Greeks from all over, have come to understand why we do it and are supportive on the whole. CDR has been featured in various national Greek papers, which has helped with our credibility. Sadly though, less than 1% of our income comes from Greece. This is a shame as these are Greek donkeys.
GOTH: What are your long-term goals for CDR?
JQ: To close it down due to lack of needy donkeys! However this will not happen for many years to come. We need to buy more land so the donkeys can graze more naturally. But for now, we have problems raising enough finances just to keep the place running: a lack of volunteers to help the donkeys due to the cessation of direct flights out of season limits us to what we can do and achieve. We would also like to see much more involvement from the Corfiots and to visit schools and clubs to raise awareness of the donkeys plight and our work, and to educate the next generation.
GOTH: How do you promote CDR in Greece and abroad?
JQ: We have our website and Facebook. We rely on visitors to help promote our work and this works quite well. However, we really are a very small charity with only two Board members, myself and Dagmar Lohrenz, who are actively involved and have to cope with all the administration, bureaucracy, management, etc. Unlike larger charities with paid employees, we have to manage with just the two of us. Around May I rush around the island putting up posters to attract the tourists; they are our main source of income in the summer. They come and see the shelter, approve and are delighted by the work and leave donations. Some go home to their own countries and raise awareness and do fundraising there, which helps us in the winter.
GOTH: Has CDR helped bring awareness to the plight of animals in Greece?
JQ: I believe so in the case of the donkeys. There has been for decades foreign awareness of the plight of dogs and cats in Greece but only since we started our work with donkeys did people realise there actually was a problem with unwanted donkeys. Before we started our work, all the old, abandoned and sick donkeys were collected by the gypsies and dealers and sent to Italy for slaughter. Corfiot’s knew this but it was not talked of, and it was accepted as the only way to get rid of an unwanted donkey. Nowadays villagers, who know of our existence, are only too happy to ask us to take in their old donkey, many old ladies cry when we take them but they are so happy for the donkey that it will have a good retirement with us. CDR has, in effect, stopped the export of donkeys from Corfu to the slaughterhouses of Italy. As for the foreign visitors, when they visit CDR and see so many donkeys with such a vast array of problems they are shocked but also delighted to see there is a place for these animals where they can be helped, given medical treatment and given a peaceful retirement in their remaining years. All our visitors comment on and lament the disappearing working donkeys in Corfu, so they are happy to see donkeys at the sanctuary; it really makes their holiday.
GOTH: Donkeys are considered to be slow and stubborn. What is a characteristic that might surprise us about donkeys?
JQ: What is classified as stubborn to us is actually a donkey trying to tell us something but we are not listening. We would do well to listen to the animals; they are all much smarter than we think.
For more information on Corfu Donkey Rescue, to learn about volunteer opportunities or to make a donation, visit their website.