07 May 2003
Up until recently, El Hierro, the smallest island of the Canary Islands, was not a vacation destination for many tourists. Today, however, that is changing, as more and more people are coming to visit a unique animal refuge. It is not your typical refuge with exotic birds or rare species -- it is a refuge for donkeys. A total of 26 donkeys, either too old or no longer wanted by their owners, are living there on approximately 5,000 square metres.
"We would like to give a worthy retirement for older donkeys, which have worked very hard for people throughout their life," says Philip Townsend. A native of England, he and his wife, Carina, for the past six years have been working on the project Los Burros Felices - The happy donkeys. Philip, an architect by profession, and his wife, Carina, who worked in the medical and social professions in her native Germany, decided to move to the island and dedicate their time and energy to protecting the island’s remaining donkey population
The project started with an initial rescue of two donkeys. The couple continued their efforts and saved 13 additional donkeys during their first year on El Hierro. In the following six years, the refuge took care of 61 animals, 40 per cent from El Hierro and 60 per cent from the other islands of the archipelago. Thanks to the Townsends’ volunteer commitment, donkeys on the edge of Guarazoca village escaped a sad fate. A number of donkeys are condemned to a painful death by being left alone in remote areas of the island, often tied up without water or food.
While donkeys can live up to the age of 45, many live much shorter lives -- some not past 25 -- due to poor treatment and physical abuse. Many suffer from laminitis, an often crippling illness caused by malnutrition that affects the hooves and then the foot bone of the animals. In the refuge, the donkeys are medically treated for the disease and Philip worked with blacksmiths to carry out operations on the donkeys in need of urgent care. In most cases, the operation succeeded and the animal was restored to health.
The Townsends acquired their knowledge for treating donkeys during ten years of working with veterinarians and blacksmiths. Apart from taking care of the animals, Philip and Carina share their knowledge and expertise with volunteers from around the world. With people coming to the island eager to learn veterinary medicine and the skills to take care of animals, the Townsends introduce the volunteers to the TLC formula - Tender, Love and Care. For most of the volunteers, who stay on the refuge for two to six months, this experience is very intensive and sustainable. After returning to her home country, Lindsy from New Zealand transferred the skills she acquired on the refuge to local farmers. Frya from Sweden now works with disabled people. She will return to El Hierro for six months to increase her knowledge on animal care. Even trainees seriously affected by illness came to Los Burros Felices . The Townsends report that they noticed an improvement in their health through working with the donkeys in the climate of the Canaries.
Donkeys are remarkable animals. The long-eared and large-headed animal has been the faithful companion of man for some 6,000 years. Today, in many parts of the world, machines have replaced donkeys in many areas of work.
Carina says the volume of their brain is four times as large as that of a horse and they are more intelligent than horses. Donkeys rapidly recognize people who take care of them and are rarely hostile. One donkey named Ramon, who arrived at the refuge four years ago, had scars all over his body. He had also worn the same headpiece for 23 years. The iron and leather parts of the headpiece had grown into the nose. Five men were needed to hold the animal in order to remove the harness, which left Ramon with a painful wound. In just three weeks, however, he gained confidence in his new owners and liked resting his head on Carina’s shoulder. Today, he is a confident and gentle animal.
On the Canary Islands, donkeys are becoming extinct, as their numbers are decreasing rapidly. "We would be glad to raise donkeys on the farm, so that one day, children wouldn’t have to go to a zoo to see a donkey," says Carina. "However our financial means are very limited." The Townsends used their savings to buy pastureland and converted their garage into a shed. Almost all of their income goes into the maintenance of the farm. The cost of feeding a donkey is, on average, 60 Euros per month. To earn a living, they rent a part of their house to tourists. In his spare time, Philip makes wooden mobiles of donkeys, which he sells at the refuge.
The Townsends have yet to receive any official financial support despite Los Burros Felices is unique in the Canaries and is responsible for attracting many tourists to El Hierro. The couple says when tourists visit the refuge, it is not only an opportunity for them to relax, but a chance to be reminded of mankind’s responsibility to preserve nature, respect living organisms, reflect on the history between man and animals, and give a little TLC to the island’s special inhabitants.